Israel at 70: the drummer, the baker, the rescuer

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - The cantor’s grandson came from Tajikistan. The baker, who survived Auschwitz, came from Czechoslovakia. The emergency responder is a sixth-generation Jerusalemite. Together in one land, they celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary on Wednesday evening.

Since 1948, Israel has been home to Jewish immigrants from around the world. And when they arrived in their new home, many stuck to what they knew, and who they knew, handing down family trades from generation to generation.

Dressed in a traditional Bukharan floral gown and embroidered cap, 85-year-old Allo Alaev plays the doyra - a central-Asian frame drum.

The Alaevs came to Israel from Tajikistan in 1991, one family among the 1 million Jews who have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the fall of communism in 1990.

The master percussionist is accompanied by two sons and five of his grandchildren playing rhythmic, fast-tempo folk music on an accordion, violins and a darbuka drum.

“My father was a famous singer there, his father was a cantor and my mother was a famous doyra player. I learned how to play it from her,” said Allo, the family patriarch.

Israel’s cultural mix has been a boon. “It’s only made our music better,” said his son Ariel, 51. “Music has no borders.”

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Keeping a family trade has provided a sense of stability for some Jewish immigrants who survived the Holocaust.

Jolanda Wilheim came to Israel in 1949, after she and her husband had been in the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.

Their daughter, Myriam Zweigenbaum, said her father’s father had owned a bakery before the war, so when her parents moved to a new land where they had nothing else to fall back on, they drew on family knowledge to start their own bakery.

Wilheim, 96, still works in that small bakery in central Israel, with her daughter and two granddaughters.

“I feel I’m living out what it was that the Nazis had tried to cut down more than 70 years ago,” said Wilheim’s granddaughter, Keren Zweigenbaum, 38.

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Despite the wars that Israel has fought with its Arab neighbors - and the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Israel is seen by many Jewish immigrants as a safe haven in the Middle East.

The oldest Israelis remember the anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, fanned by Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism. The turmoil saw entire Jewish communities leave countries in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia.

That flight only accelerated after the establishment of Israel and the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, which fueled anger across the Arab world at the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the conflict.

The fate of those Palestinians - the vast majority of whom have never been able to return - is inextricably linked with that of Israel. The events of 70 years ago that Israelis celebrate are cause for mourning among Palestinians, who commemorate them as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”.


But not all Israelis are newcomers. David Weissenstern’s ancestors have been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were among the first families who moved out of the walled Old City in the 19th century, and built the first Jewish neighborhoods outside it.

Weissenstern, his son and grandson are part of Zaka, an Israeli emergency rescue and recover organization. Most of its volunteers, like him, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Often first on the scene of car accidents and militant attacks, one of their tasks is to collect the body parts of victims, to ensure their proper burial.

“Treatment of the dead is one of the greatest Jewish edicts,” said Weissenstern, 71. His family, he said, has always kept communal Jewish edicts of charity and care for the other:

“If you make a dollar more or a dollar less, that’s less important. What matters is what you’ve given to others.”

By contrast, Aharon Ben Hur, 84, only came to Israel in 1951 from Iraq, once home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East.

Ben Hur’s father and young brother were among 180 Baghdad Jews killed in 1941, in a pogrom known as the Farhud. He now runs two falafel restaurants in Tel Aviv, with his son and grandson.

“In Iraq, as a boy, my parents suffered,” he said. “When we came to Israel, it was another life.”

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Kevin Liffey