Tales of Love and Loss in the White City

On Tu B'Av, the Israeli Valentine’s Day, heritage sites and museums in Tel Aviv will present tales of love, some happier than others, born in the early days of the city.

Esther Davis was 18 when she boarded a ship from New York to "Eretz Israel." She won a free, three-month trip to Palestine from Young Judaea after winning an essay contest from the Zionist organization. On the fourth day of her journey, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Davis wrote in her journal: "I went to first class, and some chap introduced himself to me. His name is Rubin and he's an artist from Palestine. He's quite ugly, but fascinating. He thinks I have beautiful eyes and he's very friendly. He's 34 but still single."

This chance meeting, in 1929, launched a love story between Davis and Reuven Rubin, a pioneer of Israeli art who lived and worked in Tel Aviv during the city's formative early years. Davis passed away two years ago -- more than 30 years after Rubin. Today the couple's home on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv houses the Rubin Museum, where one of the most striking works on display in the permanent collection is "The Engaged Couple" – a self-portrait of the artist and his fiancée on a balcony overlooking a scenic Tel Aviv landscape.

The Rubins' story, along with other tales of love in the White City, will take center stage this week during the event "Love in the Big City," at museums across town. Among the historic venues participating in the event are the Etzel Museum, the Jabotinsky Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum, Rubin Museum, Palmach House, Ben-Gurion House, and others. 

The Tel Aviv municipality and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites are organizing the event on the occasion of Tu B'Av (the 15th of the month of Av, which falls on Friday, Aug. 3), Israel's version of Valentine's Day.

A sweet, unexpected story

Carmela Rubin, Reuven and Esther's daughter-in-law, says their romance wasn't quite love at first site. "Esther didn't come from a Zionist or ideological home," she says. "Her parents were displeased with her trip to Palestine. They thought she would go for three months and come home."

Esther's family also had a difficult time accepting her new beloved, who was "both an artist and old," Carmela says. Reuven Rubin was about 20 years Esther's senior.

"At first she saw his ugliness," Carmela says of Esther. "But slowly she began to discover other sides to him, and also learned to love Israel thanks to him. They built a life together and lived here for many years. Their story is sweet and unexpected – it's optimistic, for a change."

Omri Shalmon, director general of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, says the Tu B'Av events will "present dozens of powerful and riveting love stories."

Shalmon says that the many tales have equally varied starting points. "Some of the love stories connected to the museums began at cultural evenings with singing and dancing," he says. Other relationships began to blossom between historic figures in Israel during joint guard duty, for example. Shalmon says that is some cases the couples endured war, pain and death together.

One of the more heartbreaking stories is that of Lehi commander Haim "Elimelech" Applebaum and another militia fighter named Hannah, who fell in love while working together in the underground resistance movement and eventually wed. Haim was deputy commander of the June 1946 attack on Rail Works in Haifa, for which he was imprisoned in Acre and sentenced to death.

While Applebaum was in jail, Hannah learned she was pregnant. When their daughter was born, the couple published a birth announcement in Haaretz. Applebaum wrote a poem for his daughter while in prison: "… and when you grow up and your homeland acquires its cherished liberty, wed your heart to love: love of humanity, love of your homeland. But if your homeland is still fettered, wed your heart to love and to hate: love of the homeland, but hatred of its occupiers."

Applebaum was killed in 1947 around age 22, in an attempted prison break. Hannah later married another Lehi member who also died, and then married a third time (also to an underground fighter) with whom she lives until today.

Love: the best medicine?

The Lehi Museum is located in the Florentine neighborhood in Tel Aviv, in the building where the British killed Avraham (Yair) Stern, the group's founder. On Tu B'Av, the museum will present an array of love stories forged in the underground. The main one – "When Yair met Roni" – tells the story of Stern and Roni Berstein, his wife.

Their romance began in 1927 at the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus and was cut short in 1942 when Stern was shot dead by the British. The love letters the couple sent to one another form a book called "Letters to Roni." The last letter, which Stern wrote to his wife on Jan. 30, 1942, was sent to her by messenger.

"My delicate little kitten, tomorrow will mark six years of our marriage," he wrote. "How I would like to be alone with you and to silently express to you what man cannot express in words, in any place. But you are not with me… You are not, but I want you to know that I am with you in my thoughts, in my feelings, in my soul… Know that if you feel you can no longer, that you must leave me, I will understand you and love you the same as I do now: tenderly, honestly and faithfully. See you soon, your husband."

Another love story that relates to Tel Aviv actually began about 70 kilometers away, in the coastal Arab village of Tantura near Zichron Yaakov. The tragic-romantic tale is recounted in the book "Falling in Love with Eretz Israel," by Ofer Regev, and the protagonist is none other than Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv.

Dizengoff, a chemical engineer by training, established a glass factory in the Tantura in 1892, to manufacture bottles for the wine produced by the Baron de Rothschild. Legend has it that when the village elder's daughter got sick, Dizengoff brought her medicine and saved her life. The remedy had one unexpected side effect, though: she fell in love with her savior, and her father urged Dizengoff to wed his daughter. Dizengoff refused, because he was in love with another – Zina, also known as the "lady of the White City."

Dizengoff visited the Arab village again, only to get some bad news. The young woman's father told him that she had fallen ill again, and this time died.

This bittersweet story and others will be told at Independence Hall, formerly the home of Meir and Zina Dizengoff on Rothschild Boulevard, during a discussion titled "First love in the birthplace of the state."