Israeli Scion of One of British Jewry’s Best-known Families Slaughters Sacred Cows

Gur Bentwich makes a documentary about his bloodline, set to have its international premier at this month’s Docaviv film festival in Tel Aviv.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A collage of the Bentwich family.
A collage of the Bentwich family.Credit: Nir Matarasso
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Being born into Jewish aristocracy comes with benefits. But also lots of baggage, as Gur Bentwich can testify first-hand.

A scion of the illustrious British family whose name he carries and whose offspring now live primarily in Israel, the irreverent filmmaker has even coined a term for the phenomenon – one that serves as the title of his new documentary: “The Bentwich Syndrome.”

Here, in one of the opening scenes, is how he defines this rather curious ailment: “a collective emotional syndrome that causes those suffering from it to glorify their family heritage and to exaggerate the value of their actions and contributions to mankind.”

If it isn’t already entirely clear, Bentwich is out to slaughter some sacred cows in this 70-minute film, set to have its international premier at this month’s Docaviv film festival in Tel Aviv. Weaving together interviews with other clan members, amusing and often painfully frank insights of his own, as well as clever animation stunts, the filmmaker traces the history of one of British Jewry’s – not to mention the modern Jewish State’s – most acclaimed families.

Another member of the clan is Haaretz journalist and author Ari Shavit, whose New York Times bestseller “My Promised Land” opens with the story of his great-grandfather Herbert’s first trip to Palestine.

A pioneer of British Zionism, Gur’s great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich was an affluent London lawyer who mingled with the likes of Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, and in 1897 led a first-of-its-kind delegation of prominent British Jews to Palestine. Herbert and his wife Susannah raised 11 children – nine daughter and two sons – the youngest of whom, Israel Prize laureate Joseph Bentwich, was the filmmaker’s grandfather.

Other distinguished family members include Herbert and Susannah’s daughter Thelma Yellin, the renowned cellist after whom Israel’s leading high school of the arts is named; the couple’s son Norman Bentwich, who served as the British-appointed attorney general of Mandatory Palestine; and their grandson Professor Zvi Bentwich, an international pioneer in fighting AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Among some of the other prominent Zionist figures with family connections to the Bentwiches are Hillel Yaffe, the physician after whom a major medical center in the country is named and whose daughter was married to Joseph Bentwich; Shimon Agranat, a former Supreme Court president who was married to Herbert and Susannah’s granddaughter; and Eliezer Yellin, Thelma’s husband, who was a prominent Jerusalem architect (he built the first house in the upscale Rehavia neighborhood) as well as the son of David Yellin, the founder of one of the country’s first teachers’ colleges.

The Bentwich saga is not devoid of scandal, though, and the filmmaker seems to take particular relish in the more unsavory bits of his family history. For example, the fact that three of Herbert and Susannah’s daughters left the Jewish faith and converted to Christianity. One of these daughters – described in the film as “lacking any talent and ugly” – even had a relationship with another woman before becoming a nun. Another left her husband and children a day after her eldest son’s bar mitzvah to spend the rest of her life prancing around America with her piano. A third discovered her true love only after he had died, and he happened to be her brother-in-law.

And then there are Nita Bentwich and her husband Michael Lange, the first members of the family to stake a claim the Holy Land. The couple settled in the picturesque town of Zichron Yaakov, where the gorgeous estate they once owned is now a national landmark. But alas, they never had children, and only when Nita died mysteriously at the age of 36, after 11 years of marriage, did it emerge that she had been a virgin all along. Her grieving husband, whose subsequent marriage proposals to two of her sisters were rejected, eventually killed himself.

Another sister, Naomi, worked as a personal secretary to one of the world’s best-known economists, John Maynard Keynes. She was also helplessly in love with him, and somehow, had convinced herself that not only were the feelings mutual but that his academic writings were, in fact, his secret way of communicating his true feelings to her. Eventually, Keynes fired the lovesick Bentwich daughter, letting her know in no uncertain terms that reciprocity was not part of the deal.

Even Herbert, the great father figure who ruled the house with an iron hand, engaged in some unusual practices, as the film reveals. He and Susannah made a point of exchanging love letters every single day of their life together. And when his beloved wife died, the grieving husband insisted that his youngest son share his bedroom with him until he turned 18.

Gur Bentwich’s prime motivation for making this film, it would seem, is not only to uncover these and other juicy nuggets, but also, to reconnect with his father, Micha, who died at the relatively young age of 57. A fighter in the pre-state Palmach brigade, Micha, like many other member of the Bentwich clan, graduated from Cambridge University’s illustrious Trinity College. And even though he eventually went on to become a professor of physics, this child of the youngest son of Herbert and Susanna Bentwich was always considered the black sheep of the family.

In ruminating about his father’s precarious status, Gur can’t help but wonder whether all the problems began when Micha engaged in his first act of rebellion as a young boy of 13. It was there at his great big bar mitzvah bash, held in 1943 in Jerusalem, that young Micha Bentwich made this request when told he could now ask for anything he wished: Absolutely no more violin lessons.

The filmmaker takes pride in the fact that his own daughter, Tamar, quit piano after two lessons – an indication that her grandfather’s blood runs strong in her veins.

The film will be screened on May 8 at 16:00 and on May 15 at 14:00. It will also be broadcast on Channel 8 on May 25 at 21:00.

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