Ageless in Tel Aviv

Diana Lerner, 89, still loves Tel Aviv, even if it’s not the city she knew 60 years ago.

Diana Lerner 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Diana Lerner 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
She may be close to 90 – but Diana Lerner is still as vivacious and entertaining as ever, and she doesn’t miss a beat. With her exceptional memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Tel Aviv and its luminaries going back 60-plus years, talking to her means hearing fascinating stories about those early days when no one locked their doors and everyone knew everyone else.
One of her first journalistic jobs was writing for The Jerusalem Post back in the late ’50s; she has written for just about every newspaper in the country, as well as several abroad. She’s still writing and is about to launch her third book, called, appropriately, Ageless in Tel Aviv.
For someone who sounds New York to her fingertips, it is hard to believe she was actually born in Hungary in 1922. Her father, a rabbi, moved to the United States in 1927, and two years later, seven-yearold Diana joined him with the rest of the family on the Lower East Side. Always conscious of her Jewishness and of being a minority, she had planned to be a social worker so she could help people, including the streams of refugees from Europe who arrived at her home.
But writing was her first love. She studied for a BA in arts and says that to this day, she never makes a grammatical mistake. She won a prize in an essay competition run by New York State.
“It was something about mistreating cats,” she says.
“I can’t stand them now,” she adds with a giggle.
In 1947, she made her first trip to pre-state Palestine.
She had been working in the library of the Jewish Institute of Religion, a branch of Hebrew Union College, and had taken a crash course in social work run by the World Jewish Congress to be able to deal with the problems of displaced persons in the postwar period.
“You could be sent to Paris or Palestine,” she recalls, “and as my mother wouldn’t hear of Paris, I came here.”
The journey, on a converted troop ship, took two weeks, and she was met in Haifa by a cousin, who picked her up in a donkey cart and took her back to Rehovot, a two-day and rather bumpy journey.
Eventually she found herself in Jerusalem and became a member of the Stern Group, taking information from one place to another.
“It was a very exciting time,” she recalls. She landed her first writing job, editing the B’nai B’rith monthly magazine.
She returned to New York when her mother became ill and died, and it was only after eight years that she was finally able to make aliya, in 1956.
After her first job working for the Finance Ministry, she moved to Tel Aviv and began her work for the Post.
“I had a very important job – I had to take down the stories from stringers all over the country and telex them to Jerusalem. I was always very careful and accurate, but it didn’t stop [former prime minister David] Ben-Gurion from complaining to the Post many times that he hadn’t said what was written.”
She once called information (in those days 14) and asked for the Prime Minister’s Office. They put her through directly to Ben-Gurion himself at home at 11 one night.
“He screamed at me,” she remembers.
When she took a tour guide course, it opened up the possibility of freelancing for the Hebrew press, as so many stories just fell into her lap.
She began writing for the Hebrew dailies – always in English, which was translated. She met all the Hollywood stars coming here to film – including Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, who arrived in 1960 to make Exodus – and she sent on-the-spot reports to Movie Magazine.
She reported the wedding of Otto Preminger – she’d gotten the information from the rabbi’s wife – and found herself in trouble when the famous director complained to the editor of Haaretz at the time, Gershom Schocken. She once memorably got arrested for taking a photographer into a municipal mikve (ritual bath), and she wrote about Ruth and Moshe Dayan’s happy home life in a cover story for the glossy Israel Magazine – which appeared on the day they announced their divorce.
She was friendly with the stars of early Tel Aviv, like Yaffa Yarkoni and Esther Rubin, and is still invited to glittering public relations junkets; she goes to them all.

Lerner never married, and when asked for an explanation, she laughs and says, “I’m too lazy.” But she has a close family of nieces and great-nieces and nephews, and she has shared her life for the last 40 years with David Z. Rich, a brilliant economist and jazz musician and author of several books.
She still loves Tel Aviv, even if it’s not the city she knew 60 years ago.
“You used to hear the cow-bell ringing, and you wouldn’t know whether to go down with a bucket for ice, or a bottle to get your paraffin,” she remembers.
“The trouble is that nowadays Tel Aviv wants to be New York, which it resembles in some ways, but it’s lost its innocence.”
In 2006 she published I Must Have Come Out of an Eggplant, an autobiography. Her memoir, My Tel Aviv, was brought out for the centenary of the city.
Lerner says she’s settled a few scores in Ageless in Tel Aviv, and as she’s always been fun to read, this one promises not to disappoint.