Arrivals: Zali de Toledo: From Istanbul to Ramat Hasharon

"It's the land of opportunity. Look at me. I started off as a cleaner and I became a diplomat."

Zali de Toledo 88 248 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Zali de Toledo 88 248
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
"Cat-mad" would seem to be a fair description of Zali de Toledo, who shares her apartment in Ramat Hasharon with nine felines. They all travelled with her on an El Al flight when she returned four years ago after a 10-year stint as cultural attaché in Turkey. But her love affair with Israel began long before that when the 17-year-old Zali left her comfortable Istanbul home and loving family to come and settle here in 1960. "I wanted to come here from the age of six. In 1949 Israel opened its embassy in Turkey's capital and I went there with my grandmother to look at the new flag on the building. It was then that I got the virus." She had to wait another 10 years before her parents agreed to let her come. She was on the first Turkish Airlines flight to Israel on April 10, 1960, and went straight to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai to study Hebrew. SETTLING IN She worked at the kibbutz, anything that came her way, including helping the shoemaker, a job in which she was able to be creative. "I learned a lot about shoemaking in those early days," she says. "To this day I drive the cobbler crazy telling him how to do his job." A brief disastrous marriage on the kibbutz produced a daughter, today 48 and a ballet teacher who at one time modeled for Gottex, and three grandchildren. But it was the first and last marriage for de Toledo. "I totally believe in freedom," she says. LIFE SINCE ALIYA "I moved to Jerusalem with my baby daughter and began work as a cleaner," she says. "From being someone who had never worked in my life, I was doing sponja for rich ladies and at the same time learning English. I'd learned Hebrew in the kibbutz, I knew French and Ladino from home and I thought it would be advantageous to speak English." She graduated to being a waitress and worked in a hotel so had no problem with food even though it was still the austerity period. After the Six Day War, she moved to Tel Aviv and decided she must branch out on her own. "I was always very aware of my lack of academic degrees, but I couldn't study because I had a child and had to work to support us." In spite of her lack of formal education, she held a series of interesting jobs which got more and more prestigious as she progressed. "I worked promoting the Encyclopedia Judaica, I managed an art gallery and eventually I became the public affairs liaison officer of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra." In the course of her work she mixed in exalted diplomatic circles, became active in the Labor Party and decided to create a Turkish/Israel Friendship Association. After several years in which she got to know many ambassadors and politicians - "everyone knew me," she says - she approached Shimon Peres. "Do you think I can represent Israel in the world with dignity?" she asked him, without saying where she had in mind. The result was that the Foreign Ministry sent her to Turkey for a year and she stayed 10. Relations flourished between the two countries in tourism, trade and her particular baby, cultural relations. She sent many artists to Turkey and brought Turkish culture to Israel. Today she feels that the relations which soured somewhat during the Gaza war with the angry declarations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Israel are on the mend. "I wasn't surprised, I know him," she says. "It's not Turkish policy, it's a one-man show. Governments come and go but relations are strong and the future looks good." As to the future, although she feels she should be retired by now, she is still actively looking after Turkish cultural interests, putting on several exhibitions to coincide with the celebration of 85 years of the republic, something she felt she wanted to be involved in. BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL "It's the land of opportunity. Look at me. I started off as a cleaner and I became a diplomat. If I could get the jobs I've had with no academic degrees, anyone can succeed if they have the will, talent and energy." ADVICE TO NEW IMMIGRANTS "Take a deep breath, it's a beautiful country."