The Spell That Haifa Casts
Book Review

The Spell That Haifa Casts

Nili Scharf Gold’s love affair with the city’s landscape and literature.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

The Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel. Wikimedia Commons
The Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel. Wikimedia Commons

Israeli novelist and playwright A.B. Yehoshua was born in Jerusalem and now lives outside of Tel Aviv, but spent more than 43 years in Haifa. The city of Haifa is a beloved heroine in his novels. The Israel Prize laureate told author Nili Scharf Gold, “Haifa is the model for what I wanted Israel to be.”

Gold spent the first 18 years of her life in Haifa, and the city’s light, terrain and streetscapes are imprinted on her heart. Her new book, “Haifa: City of Steps” (Brandeis), is original in its approach, combining a personal memoir of times bitter and sweet, a literary appreciation and an urban study of architecture and landscape. Shifting from her child’s-eye view of the city, she follows with empathy the lives of Haifa’s poets, shopkeepers, city planners, mayors, schoolteachers, architects and the fictional characters in Haifa-based novels. While she concentrates on the period from 1948 to 1966, when she lived there, she stretches back to the early years of the 20th century when Haifa was an Arab city with a small mix of Jews, German Templars and Turks. She also touches on the present and hints at the future, while trying to steer the book away from politics.

“I began to decipher the spell that the city casts over those who know it well,” she writes.

Haifa sits majestically on the Carmel, the mountain range sloping toward the sea in northern Israel. Gold focuses on the neighborhood where she grew up, Hadar HaCarmel (“splendor of the Carmel,” a biblical phrase from the Book of Isaiah). The city’s first Jewish neighborhood, it housed the first public park and first modern sewer system in Israel. Its layout enhances natural vistas to the sea, and its architecture combines International Style, sometimes referred to as Bauhaus, old Arab stone houses, and some buildings that combine the two styles with the use of local materials. Some of the rounded facades match the curves of the steep streets. Not far from her school was the original site of the Technion — it was an open secret that it was Haganah headquarters.

Gold, professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet,” now lives in Manhattan. Her Upper West Side apartment features a large window looking out over the Hudson, and she explains in an interview there that the wide view of the water makes her feel at home. The screensaver on her computer is a view of Haifa, looking out toward the bay.

She was inspired to take on this project while working on her biography of Amichai, when she traveled to Wurzburg, Germany — she felt she couldn’t fully understand his poetry unless she saw firsthand the images of his childhood. She realized that she had a city of her own youth that she wanted to write about. At first, she thought to concentrate on the city’s landscape and literature, but after beginning her research during a 2010 visit, she joined a walking tour and came to see that the city’s architecture — its grid, planning, stones and structures that embrace the mountain — which she didn’t yet fully understand, was a large part of the story.

While she knew well how to read a literary piece, she learned how to read a building and tease out its meaning. She researched blueprints of the buildings, combed historical archives and walked with people engaged in the city’s life. One discovery she made is that the building that housed her father’s housewares store was designed by the architect Moshe Gerstel, whose “stylistic fingerprints” are all over the city. Like many of the uprooted European-trained artists and designers who found refuge and work in the city in the 1930s, he is now little known.

“I wanted to put these unsung heroes on the map,” she says. The book is illustrated with photographs and hand-drawn maps.

Gold’s book contains a map of her Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood of Haifa. As a native and as a writer, the city enchants her. Courtesy of Francois Ilnseher

She reread literary works with an eye toward her own Haifa neighborhood and interviewed several writers. In addition to Yehoshua, Gold looks at the work of Israeli novelists Yoel Hoffman and Sami Michael, a native Arabic speaker who came to Haifa as a journalist in the early 1950s and then started fiction in Hebrew — Haifa is the setting for five of his 15 novels. Amichai lived in Haifa and wrote about it in letters, which Gold was the first to report on in her biography. The lives of many Israeli fictional characters are tied to the city’s landscape, like those in Yehudit Hendel’s “The Street of Steps” and Esty G. Hayim’s “Corner People.”    

“We were children of the State,” Gold says of her generation, born in 1948. Her parents were German-speaking immigrants. Her Galician-born father “arrived in Haifa Bay in 1939 from Vienna, via Dachau.” Her mother, born in Chernovitz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, left in 1933. Gold’s mother settled in Tel Aviv, moved to Haifa in 1940, and met her husband in one of Haifa’s European cafés.

Gold recalls her first home, a ground-floor apartment the family rented from the house’s Arab owner. Their window sill had a gash from a sniper’s bullet fired in 1948, and her mother, pregnant with Nili, was lucky to survive. Her mother would later tell her that the Arab owner left Haifa with his family in 1948. About 50,000 Arabs left the city after the Israeli victory.

She says that as a young girl, she didn’t know of the city’s Arab population, although she has an early memory of the damaged window, which they never fixed.

“I knew the houses were Arab houses; I had no idea of the enormity of the tragedy of the Arabs of Haifa,” she says. It wasn’t something they learned in school, and she didn’t then understand the context of her mother’s accounts. While writing the book, she came to “fully grasp and understand the dimensions and gravity of what had happened.”

Eva Marie Saint, Paul Newman, and Peter Lawford in Exodus. Wikimedia Commons

When she was 6, her close-knit family moved to an apartment closer to her father’s shop. Her idyllic childhood — with family outings to the sea on Friday afternoons, walks around the neighborhood holding her father’s hand, get-togethers with their created family of fellow survivors — was shattered when her father died of a heart attack when she was 10. Soon after, she lost any interest in religious life when she was asked to leave a synagogue after bringing her younger brother there to recite Kaddish for their father.

Gold recalls a Hollywood moment in Haifa, when she was about 12 and went with her mother and brother to the Zion Hotel to meet the film director and producer Otto Preminger, a relative, who was filming “Exodus,” the first American film shot in Israel. There at the bar were Paul Newman and Eva Saint-Marie.

She left Haifa for Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she met her future husband, an American then studying on his junior year abroad. They married and moved to the U.S. Gold’s mother died soon after, which left her more distant from Haifa. She taught Hebrew, first at a Talmud Torah in Minneapolis and then at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, before studying for her Ph.D. at Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught Hebrew literature at Columbia University for 18 years and has been at Penn since 2000.

Another writer who saw the literary potential of Haifa was Theodor Herzl, who wrote his utopian novel “Altneuland” (Old New Land) after visiting Palestine in 1899. He envisioned Haifa as “the city of the future” with “thousands of white villas,” green gardens and a sea that “glittered blue and gold into an infinite horizon.” 

read more: