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Arts & Culture Wwi Zionist Spy Ring’s Mystery Pursued in New Historical Novel

April 18, 2006
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When American-born Hillel Halkin and his wife Marcia first visited the northern Israeli town of Zichron Ya’acov in 1970, they discovered an unsolved mystery. The town is named for Baron James de Rothschild, and its Jewish community dates to 1882. It ranks among the earliest farming communities that Zionists established in the Holy Land in the late 19th century.

Halkin stumbled in shortly after he immigrated to Israel. A New Yorker raised on Zionist ideals, Halkin and his wife were driving from their home in Jerusalem to Haifa to visit friends when a spontaneous decision to turn off the main road and ascend the hills to Zichron Ya’acov changed their lives forever. Halkin recalls that moment vividly in his latest work, “A Strange Death” (PublicAffairs, 2005).

An acclaimed author, critic and translator for more than 35 years, Halkin writes regularly for Commentary, the New York Sun and the Jerusalem Post. His first book, “Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic,” received a National Jewish Book Award. His second, “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel,” received the 2002 Lucy Dawidowicz Prize for a historical work.

“A Strange Death” is both a whodunit and an account of an espionage saga intertwined with the history of the young Jewish state.

Told in an engaging first-person narrative, Halkin details how Zichron Ya’acov became the focal point of the Nili spy episode. During World War I, a small band of residents gathered intelligence to help the British defeat the Ottoman Turks who ruled the Holy Land.

The spy ring dissolved when Turkish authorities captured a member of one of the village’s prominent founding families, the beautiful Sarah Aaronsohn. After four days of torture, Aaronsohn shot herself in order to avoid further torture and the risk of revealing the names of her comrades, including her brother

Two other spies were hung. Their legacy and that of the Nili spy ring live on in Israeli history and in Zichron, where a museum in a former Aaronsohn home has preserved personal documents, books and family artifacts.

The informants who brought down the spy ring were part of the mystery that grabbed Halkin’s attention. But what initially drew him to town was something far simpler: a cold drink.

Stopping on their drive north, Halkin and his wife met a friendly South African couple whose dog wouldn’t stop barking at them. Rhoda and Izzy Traub invited the Halkins in for cocktails.

“We were very smitten by them,” Halkin told JTA. By the light of a full moon, having drunk plenty of wine, the Halkins considered buying an adjacent plot of land. They never made it to Haifa that night.

“It was the most romantic, impulsive decision,” Halkin said.

The Halkins dropped plans to purchase a home near Jerusalem and built in Zichron instead. The old settlement, with its ruins and farms, intrigued Halkin. While studying the local history, he discovered a tale of four women laughing hysterically as the captured Sarah Aaronsohn was led down Founders Street.

More than 30 years later, Halkin has produced a thorough recounting of the spy ring and its tragic end. He sleuthed his way through Zichron, gathering old relics to solve the mystery of the four women.

The story gracefully weaves together information collected from townsfolk with Halkin’s own impressions of the town, and with the story of simply getting the story. It’s a complex tale of fact versus fiction, memory versus imagination. With unexpected twists and turns and forays into old homes, fields and lives, Halkin delivers a satisfying, intimate journey through Zichron’s past and his fascination with it.

The book is especially appealing for readers interested in Israeli history, and can serve as a springboard for exploring Israel.

On a recent walking tour of the book’s many landmarks, Halkin said that Zichron has lost much of its character. Of the early village’s 40 or 50 farms — which once stuck out of Founders Street like ribs along a spine — only about 10 remain.

When he arrived many years ago, Halkin said, “All the old farmers’ yards were falling apart. It had a melancholy charm.”

Zichron has become increasingly commercial over time. The simple thoroughfare depicted at the opening of “A Strange Death” now is filled with gift and antique shops. A popular destination for Israelis from other parts of the country, the town boasts more than a dozen cafes and several fine restaurants.

“This is all very ‘sheeshee’ now,” Halkin says, using a slang word for chic. “None of this was here.”

It takes a little effort to slip behind Zichron’s current, gentrified facade to catch a glimpse of the run-down, nostalgic homes that Halkin found upon his arrival.

“Our first years here,” he said, “it looked like Zichron was going to fall apart.”

In 1981, he joined a conservation effort.

“The people who appreciated the town were not the people who lived here,” he said. “It was the newcomers who appreciated it and saved it.”

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