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To still be a beautiful woman at 95 is amazing. To have a mind as sharp as a razor at that age is also wonderful. But, to have been the muse of a great artist - that's the attribute I most envy Esther Rubin for.
Married to the great Israeli painter Reuven Rubin, the American-born Esther's story reads like a fairy tale or possibly a Mills and Boon novel. Traveling on the SS Mauritania in 1929, having won an essay competition on "What Palestine means to me," she met the painter who was returning from an exhibition in New York. Within minutes of their meeting he said, "I would like to marry you."
"My prize was meant to be a three month stay in Palestine," says the regal Esther. "I've been here for 77 years."
Esther was an active member of Young Judaea, and although her Hungarian immigrant parents were not particularly Zionist, she was, and at 18 entered the essay competition which was to change her life. When she boarded the liner, she had no idea she would not be returning to New York.
She noticed the strange-looking older man with a shock of dark hair several times before she was introduced to him. Once they met they spent the rest of the three-week journey together.
Having decided to stay, Esther had to let her disapproving family know she was not returning to New York. Instead she got a job as secretary to the head of an inquiry commission, headed by Lord Reading, and within a year she and Rubin were married.
"I was always a good daughter, but this one time I decided to have a small revolution in my life and follow my heart. We went on the roof of his mother's house in Tel Aviv, and friends made a huppa of four sticks and we were married. I don't know from where I had the courage, without family and far from home."
"I had to become a housewife in a strange country. I had a maid, Esther Gamlieli, who used to sing when she cleaned. Movie-making pioneer Baruch Agadati used to visit and heard her singing, and in the end she became a singer.
"Then I had Mazal whom I still see. One day I got a call from Paula Ben-Gurion. She begged me to lend her Mazal as [UN secretary-general] Dag Hammarskj ld was due to visit and her windows were very dirty. She kept Mazal for nine years and even took her to Sde Boker with them. She didn't really want to go, but she explained that she couldn't refuse as he was the prime minister."
"Yes, life was more primitive, the plumbing wasn't brilliant and there used to be camels and donkeys wandering around Tel Aviv. But the city had a lot of charm in those days."
"Rubin suggested I go and live in Jerusalem and learn Hebrew, and I roomed in a large Arab house in a kind of early ulpan run by Dr. Yitzhak Epstein, a very famous philologist and Hebraist. He had a deep booming voice and was chosen to make the first radio announcement - "Kan medabrim me Yerushalayim" (Jerusalem calling) - when radio was first broadcast. My teacher was a very young Reuven Shiloah who later became head of the Mossad."
"Nothing that I remember. I fitted myself into life here immediately." In her autobiography, Bouquet of Memories which she says she wrote for her grandchildren, she writes about the riots of 1929, and the many dangers faced by the pioneers, but time seems to have dulled those recollections.
THE REST OF THE STORY
In 1948, David Ben-Gurion sent for Rubin, who went along to the prime minister's residence thinking he was going to be asked advice about hanging some paintings. To his surprise, B-G said he had decided to appoint Rubin the first ambassador to Romania.
"You know the language, you are an intelligent man and a great artist and I believe you will be a good diplomat too," said the Old Man.
"But I don't know the first thing about being a diplomat," protested Rubin.
"And I know something about being a prime minister?" retorted B-G. "When your country calls you, you have to go."
The couple, together with their baby David, went to Bucharest and established the embassy.
"The Jews would crowd around us in the synagogue and kiss our car in the street," recalls Esther. "Everyone wanted to immigrate to Israel in those days. In our term at the embassy, we were able to send out 100,000 Jews in spite of the communist government. It was called 'the Rubin aliya.'"
When Rubin first arrived and presented his credentials to the foreign minister, Ana Pauker, she remembered him. "You created a soup kitchen for poor students in Bucharest," she reminded him, "and I was in the kitchen washing dishes; I didn't dare speak to you."
On returning to Tel Aviv, the Rubin home became a center of cultural activity in the new state. Artists of all kinds passing through were welcomed and became friends.
"My life has been greatly enriched by connections with Rubin's art," says Esther. "All his collectors all over the world became like family."
Through the paintings they became firm friends with the likes of Arthur Rubinstein, who would practice in their apartment if he was giving a concert in Tel Aviv. Names like Toscanini, Bialik and Edward G. Robinson crop up in anecdotes and personal recollections.
Needless to say political luminaries were their intimate friends too.
"We used to sit in Paula Ben-Gurion's kitchen with people like Teddy Kollek, Ehud Avriel and Shimon Peres, drinking tea and talking over the problems," she says.
Rubin died in 1974. Esther is still on the board of governors of the Tel Aviv Museum and is proud that two exhibitions of her husband's work, one in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem, are being held simultaneously.
The house they lived on in Rehov Bialik was bequeathed to the municipality and today is a museum with 40 of his paintings. Their daughter-in-law, Carmela Rubin, is the curator and director.
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"My love for the country. I have traveled a great deal to all the capitals of the world but have always come back to Israel, and the same is true of my children and grandchildren. They may go abroad for education but they all come back."
ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS
"Try to come with a profession so that you can work and become part of the economy. Once you find a job and a roof over your head, your life here is accounted for. And take things in your stride as we did."