1964. Photographer-author David Rubinger and I are sprawled in front of the fireplace of his home. Teddy Kollek had resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office: The avowed Ben-Gurionist could no longer bridge the vast chasm separating B-G and his successor Levi Eshkol. Both David and I lamented Israel’s loss of Teddy’s immense talents.
How can Teddy “only” run a private business, when the country needs his powerful leadership and ability? I think both David and I said simultaneously, “How about Teddy becoming mayor of Jerusalem?” David: “How are we going to spread the idea?” Silence. Thinking....
“I know. Tomorrow night the Philharmonic is at Binyanei Ha’uma [the Jerusalem International Convention Center].
Everybody who counts will be there. Let’s start a rumor. We’ll just go around whispering in people’s ears, as if it’s a secret: ‘Did you hear that Teddy’s running for mayor of Jerusalem?’” “Great idea. Let’s do it.”
When we told Teddy this story many years later, he was totally surprised.
Well, David and I believe we did help make Teddy mayor, maybe even the rumor triggered his interest; but as an historian of sorts, this writer knows that there are many cases when great minds think alike....
Teddy was mayor from 1965 when he was 54 years of age, until he was 82.
There is no need to recount all he did, from enlisting the greatest architects and town planners to help plan how the city, united after 1967, would look.
“If you seek his monument, look about you.”
Six in the morning, and Teddy was out checking the streets, which were clean and which needed attention, which flower beds were prospering and which not. The taxi drivers starting their shifts would yell “Hi Teddy.”
Through the Jerusalem Foundation, which he established and via the limited public budgets, Jerusalem saw a burst of creativity unparalleled in its millennial history. He created a coterie of supporters which included every important Jew in the world, and myriads of non-Jews.
Here and there Teddy charged me with various tasks. One was a suicide mission: Ruth Cheshin, then director of the foundation, and he asked me to raise the first funds for the Liberty Bell Garden, built around an exact replica of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, in honor of the bicentennial of the United States.
Why was it a suicide mission? When I arrived in New York, the American chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation told me flatly, “Nobody here gives a damn about the bicentennial.” I proved him wrong, at the cost of an attack of ulcers and ceaseless kamikaze visits.
Even the legendary Billy Graham contributed a whopping sum for a meditation area, called that to avoid religious symbolism which could arouse ire then as now. Eventually, we broke ground, in the presence of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
At that time, in 1975, Kollek and Cheshin referred to the Liberty Bell as pa’amon hahofesh, which is the correct modern Hebrew term. But someone who shall remain nameless told them that the biblical quotation on the Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” uses the Hebrew word dror. That is why it is named Gan Pa’amon Hadror.
How did Teddy and Tamar, his gentle, devoted wife, entertain, and where? I refer now to the early 1960s, when I was still on his staff.
In their small apartment in the capital’s Rehavia neighborhood, there was a relatively large living room, too small to be graced with the name “salon.”
There were a few couches, chairs, coffee- and end tables. There they would entertain the world’s great and famous, ranging from a multimillionaire yachting around the world with two attractive female companions, and stopping off in Haifa to pay respects to Teddy, to Marlene Dietrich. An unforgettable sight, Teddy sitting on the floor, next to her fabled legs. And he was looking at the photographer.
Teddy was a superb host. He would peel oranges to hand his guests, and personally carried around plates of snacks. In the small fridge were two large pitchers of dry (gin) martinis, which I would help serve. (Stir, do not shake the martini, he said.) Once, in the midst of such an event in that apartment, Teddy, famed archeologist (and former IDF chief of staff) Yigael Yadin and Avraham Harman, later ambassador to the US – all suddenly withdrew into the modest Kollek kitchen. Since this looked interesting, in walked I as well. Teddy and Avraham (“Abe”) were working on Yadin, trying to convince him to take a few weeks off his Masada digs for a coast-to-coast US tour for United Jewish Appeal. Yadin would not budge: his digs and findings came first.
Harman to Yadin: “Look, Yigael, when we send someone from government, he leaves and on his return, after two weeks, his desk is piled over his head with files.... But you, your work has been waiting two thousand years.
So what’s two weeks more?” Teddy was not a pushover. He had a temper, and with age it became more pronounced. With age, fame and perhaps too many yes-men, Teddy played the curmudgeon. “Don’t talk to me unless you have a check.” In most cases he got the check.
And yet, he was always Teddy. At an Israel Museum Board meeting, he appeared wearing a tie, a gift of a well-meaning donor. Teddy began his welcome address: “You all see I own a tie. Now that you’ve seen it, I can take it off.” These little shtick were all part of his public and private personae.
He also perfected another technique.
At a concert, or other performance, as the audience was all but fully seated, he would walk down to the front row or the most visible location, shake hands and chat with the VIPs. As the hall lights dimmed, he would make his escape. My wife Henrietta and I named it “doing a Teddy,” and later in life, I would do a Teddy from time to time.
Teddy’s personal imprint on Jerusalem is unique. Not since the times of Ezra and Herod has so much been done by one man for this, the Jerusalem of Gold.
Avraham Avi-hai worked with Teddy Kollek in the Prime Minister’s Office, and later was on occasion enlisted by Kollet, then mayor of Jerusalem, for special projects. He is the author of a political study of David Ben-Gurion, and of the recent novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams.