The moment he laid eyes on Mirtza Antin 74 years ago, Natan Abramovitch was determined to win a date with her. Little did he know that they’d end up fighting through a War of Independence together, witness the growth of a Jewish state and one day celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary as Tel Aviv — their city — turns 100 years old.
It’s still their city, sure, but the urban center that Tel Aviv has become is hard to recognize for them now, and they prefer to think back to the carefree days when they were newly married, and both they and their country were young.
“He had horses, he had a car,” Mirtza, told The Jewish Week over coffee and cake in
“He had horses, he had a car,” Mirtza, told The Jewish Week over coffee and cake inthe Tel Aviv apartment that she and Natan have owned for the past 68 years. Her youthful eyes glimmering under vibrantly dyed red hair, she poked fun at the handsome young man who she said “followed her around” for four years until they were married. “He was born specially for me,” Mirtza said.
“She’s still a little girl,” Natan responded, explaining that in the 1930s his town, Rishon L’Tzion, was known for its nice young men, while nearby Rehovot had the prettiest girls. “I chose the most beautiful,” he added. “She was one to write home about.”
The Abramovitches are just one couple among a small population of Tel Avivians who have literally grown up simultaneously with the city. In fact, the municipality’s records show that 350 residents are 100 years old or older, according to Dani Eshet, who photographed 100 people over 95 years old for his “Centenarians” exhibit featured in the official Tel Aviv 100 celebrations.
“I really love communicating with those people,” Eshet said. “I received strength from them.” Eshet said he found the project incredibly rewarding, and the entire photo collection went on display at central Tel Aviv’s Heichal HaTarbut (Temple of Culture) for a week earlier this month. In turn, the city has compiled the photographer’s work into a catalogue, which will be available in senior centers and other social venues throughout the city.
“To tell you the truth I’m not so happy to be 90 — I’d like to be younger,” said Mirtza, who together with her husband Natan was one of Eshet’s favorite interviews. “I don’t feel 90. The way I think, the way I behave — I don’t think I am 90. My spirit is young.”
Natan, 95, was born to two Russian immigrants in Rishon L’Tzion, who, separately, had moved to Jerusalem with their parents during the 1870s, in an effort to escape from a mandatory enlistment in the Russian army. His parents and grandparents were, he said, among the pioneers who founded the city of Rishon, he said, located about 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv.
Mirtza, now 90, was born in Rehovot, a city founded in 1890 some 17 miles southeast of Tel Aviv and five miles from Rishon. Her Zionist father had come from a very wealthy family in Russia and was the only member of the family to leave Russia and move to Israel.
Mirtza and Natan first met at one of many combined Rehovot-Rishon social events, when she was only 16 and he only 20. After completing high school in Tel Aviv, Mirtza spent several years as a first aid volunteer for both the Magen David Adom rescue teams and the Haganah, Israel’s pre-Independence military defense unit. Although she found her work exciting, she said she looked forward to the biweekly visits from Natan, who faithfully crossed the dangerous Arab neighborhood that separated Rehovot and Rishon at the time.
“He kissed me after six months, so I thought I was pregnant,” Mirtza said, laughing at her youthful naivety.
When they finally decided to get married in June of 1939, the couple lived in Rehovot for two years and then moved to Tel Aviv, to the same apartment that they still own and live in today. Because of the looming war, the newlyweds decided to abandon their European honeymoon plans, and Natan began to operate a textile company for the British Royal Air Force.
Yet as war began to ravage Europe, Mirtza and Natan maintained the aristocratic lifestyle that Tel Aviv was known for at the time — weekends on the beach, late-night parties and carefree horseback rides up north to Ramat Gan. At this point, Jaffa was still considered the main city, while Tel Aviv remained the small but glamorous, even “snobbish” sidekick, Mirtza explained.
“Tel Aviv developed a lot; it became the big city of the state,” Natan said, looking back through his seven decades as a Tel Avivian. But there is a sense of longing for his and Mirtza’s young days together. “Life was much better then.”
“Even before we got there, Tel Aviv had a bad reputation for love affairs,” Mirtza added, laughing at the lighthearted, liberal nature of her city that persists even today. “It was a wonderful time. People didn’t hate each other, people were friends.”
But as 1948 rolled around, both Mirtza and Natan put aside the carefree life and dove into the war effort to claim Israel’s independence — Mirtza as a medic for wounded soldiers and Natan as a soldier.
“People were proud — if somebody didn’t join the army it was really considered shameful,” Mirtza said, sad that military pride isn’t quite as strong among young Israelis today.
“During the beginning of the war — our war — we had no maps,” Natan said, explaining that as Israel procured more advanced technology, the army began taking aerial photos of the land and quickly assembled a map that helped to facilitate victory. “We made the maps behind the British’s nose.”
Soon after the war ended, Natan and his brother-in-law pooled their investments and opened a Haifa branch of the Kaiser-Frazier automobile conglomerate, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Through barter agreements for food and other supplies, the company sold jeeps to foreign armies and governments.
“Israel was in a position to sell to all the world,” he said.
After a decade at the car company, Mirtza and Natan decided to vacation in the United States and the Caribbean, which included a stop in Haiti, where Natan unexpectedly met with François Duvalier, Haiti’s self-proclaimed “president for life” from 1957 through 1971. After getting to know Duvalier, Natan said that the president decided that he would be the ideal leader of a Haitian Consulate in Israel.
As consul, Natan bounced between his office in Tel Aviv to Haiti, where Mirtza was pursuing her career as a professional artist, painting and sculpting colorful portraits, landscapes and figurines. Since then, her works have been featured in galleries all over the world, she said, including in New York, and the pieces now decorate nearly every nook and cranny of their large Tel Aviv apartment.
Though the couple continued to travel frequently for the next 30 years, enjoying many jaunts abroad, they always came back to their very same Israeli apartment, nestled right in the center of Tel Aviv.
“We put in here our life and blood, you name it,” Natan said. “Here is the only home where the Jews will be safe.”
“When I speak about [our younger] days, it seems that I still live it,” Mirtza said. “I tell the stories and I live it again — that’s the beauty of me and Natan, that we can sit for hours late at night and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s four in the morning.’ We can sit and talk about our lives and remember things.
“This is a present that God gave me.”