The other day, as I walked out of my building in Jerusalem, I spotted a book,
Jews of Medieval England, on a wall next to our trash can.
recently attended a Jewish history lecture series, I couldn’t resist opening
Written inside this 1939 edition was the name “Isaac Gaba,” followed
by an address in Wales – 17 Winchester Ave., Penylan, Cardiff.
I did a
double take: “Gaba” was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, and she’d spent
her childhood in Wales.
Book in hand, I phoned my father, who told me
that Isaac Gaba was my great- grandfather. My father had actually visited that
address before he married my mother.
I was flabbergasted. I’m no
mathematician, but I reckon the chances of randomly coming across one’s
longdeparted Welsh great-grandfather’s book in the street in front of one’s home
in Jerusalem are pretty slim.
News of my find spread quickly – together
with speculation regarding its significance.
“You know what finding a
book with your great-grandfather’s name and address in it means?” a friend asked
me the next day.
“It probably means the book belonged to him,” I
“No. Your great-grandfather is sending you a message; he’s
obviously trying to tell you he wants you to get married.”
While I would
be delighted to comply, I wasn’t convinced. Sending me a book about the Jews of
medieval England seemed just a little too subtle a way of expressing that
One of Isaac’s daughter’s, Sarah, who recently celebrated her
90th birthday, phoned me.
“Since you’re a writer,” she suggested, “maybe
you could document my father’s life story.”
It was an interesting idea;
maybe he would have wanted that.
From what I gathered from family
members, Isaac fled from Russia to the UK as a young man in 1905 during the
disastrous Russian-Japanese war.
Arriving in London, he was interviewed
by a representative of a committee dealing with immigrants, who, upon hearing
that Isaac had no one in the UK except for a friend in the Welsh mining town of
Tredegar, sent him off there.
Isaac worked as a peddler traveling around
the Welsh valleys. Barely able to speak any English, he learned the phrase “look
in the basket,” which he used whenever anyone inquired about whether he had a
particular item for sale.
Isaac’s friend also turned out to be his
matchmaker. He mentioned to Isaac that he knew a woman back in the old country,
Malka Perl Yossem, whom he felt would be ideal for him. Isaac wrote to Malka’s
father asking him for permission to write to his daughter.
Malka corresponded. All went well, until Isaac proposed and asked Malka to join
him in Wales.
Malka agreed, but her father was adamantly against his
daughter leaving their village.
The stalemate was resolved when Malka
went on hunger strike until her father relented. He accompanied her to
In 1911, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Tredegar. Isaac, whose
English by then had apparently improved considerably, sent an urgent telegram
informing the home secretary, Winston Churchill, who sent troops to protect the
Isaac and Malka had six children in eight years, the eldest
being my grandmother, Celia.
The family eventually moved to Cardiff,
Wales. Isaac passed away in 1957, and Malka in 1966.
While I pondered
Sarah’s suggestion to write Isaac’s story, Judith, one of Isaac’s
granddaughters, mentioned to me that he had been a prolific writer, and that she
had a suitcase with hitherto unpublished Hebrew handwritten sheets by him that
seemed to be a commentary on Rashi, a famous French 11th century Biblical
As luck would have it, a world-renowned expert on Rashi,
Prof. Grossman, lives just a few doors down the road from me.
hearing my story, he offered to take a look at a few of the sheets.
the expert pored over the faded handwriting, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it
be amazing, if this chain of events led to Isaac’s writings finally being
The Rashi expert was less enthusiastic.
“The sheets do
occasionally refer briefly to Rashi,” he said, “but most of the content isn’t
really a commentary on Rashi, so I can’t really be of much help in assessing
it.” So, was this a blind alley? A little while later, I was walking in our
neighborhood, when I saw another book left on a wall.
Would it surprise
anyone to learn that I immediately picked it up? It was a 1936 edition of a
Hebrew book called Devarim
by Chaim Weizmann – elected Israel’s first president
in 1949 and founder of the Weizmann Institute of Science in
Inside, the author had written his name in English.
phoned one of Isaac’s grandsons, Victor, who used to work as a research
scientist at the Weizmann Institute.
“Guess what?” I said.