Veterans: Marcia Lewison: From London to Jerusalem

"I can't leave this country. I have trouble even leaving Jerusalem."

Marcia Lewison 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marcia Lewison 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Marcia Lewison points to the misty distant mountains, past the rooftops of Bethlehem across from her home in Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood. "That's Moab," she says. "From here, I can see the exact route Naomi took on her way home with Ruth." In many ways, Marcia's own journey to this spot parallels that of her ancient ancestress. She, too, arrived in Israel newly single and without resources, accompanied only by her teenage daughter. She, too, found her way smoothed through her own ingenuity and the kindness of relatives and strangers. LIFE BEFORE ALIYA Born in Brooklyn in 1935, she married businessman Bob Lewison in 1959. "He said to me, 'Are you prepared to live all over the world?' and I said 'Sure.' So six weeks after we married, we moved to Mexico and stayed six months." Over the next three years, she followed her husband from New York to California to Switzerland, where they moved with their 3-year-old, Ranee. While pregnant with their second daughter, Monique, Marcia was cared for by the same obstetrician who delivered Princess Grace of Monaco's children. Six weeks after Monique's birth, the family was relocated to Brussels and stayed there for six years. It was here that Marcia began her Jewish involvement. "I joined WIZO [Women's International Zionist Organization], which I had never heard of before, and started a Reform synagogue." Today, says Marcia, this synagogue has 300 member families. It started with five American couples who wanted an alternative to the existing Orthodox synagogue. "We met a man at a party who told us about a rabbi in London who could help us. 'But I don't know any Jews,' he said. 'I said, "You get the rabbi and I'll get the Jews and we'll start a synagogue."' And we did." The family then moved to Hong Kong for four years, where they fostered Yiu Kwang Leung, an orphaned boy about Ranee's age. They are still in contact with him and his family in Texas. Back in Belgium, Marcia and Bob took their first trip to Israel during a winter holiday. "We had, by all accounts, the worst experience in Israel of any human being," Marcia recalls. They froze in their summer clothes, they hated the cuisine, and they had a belligerent tour guide. After moving to London in 1978, the couple divorced. Marcia began planning a return to New York. "I was 43 and I wanted to remarry," she says. "But instead I came here on a trip and I never went back." ARRIVAL IN ISRAEL It was a good friend who persuaded Marcia to try Israel again. "There was a 10-day trip going with people I knew from my synagogue just after Pessah. So I went. And it wasn't the same country." A rabbi in the group encouraged her to stay a few extra days and see if she could arrange to make aliya. "So that's what I did. I can't even explain why I stayed. I got caught up with something. Certainly not with religion. I just thought it was a great place to be - exciting and pioneering. I'd lived all over the world and never felt at home before." By that time, Ranee was in university, so Marcia got Bob's permission to emigrate with 15-year-old Monique on the condition that Monique would attend the Leo Baeck School in Haifa for a year and then go to the US for college. Arranging visas from London as an American citizen was tricky, but she was helped by an aunt and uncle who had close contacts with VIPs including Shimon Peres. Still, when the duo arrived at the airport in the middle of night, there was nobody to process their paperwork. "Our plane was the last in from London and they weren't expecting me because the British hadn't told them I was coming." They arrived at a pension in Haifa, only to find that the money Marcia had wired from London had disappeared. The immigration center refused to admit her with her daughter, who was not yet making aliya. So with only a couple of travelers checks in her pocket, she rented a furnished apartment and lived on borrowed funds until her money was located. SETTLING IN A year later, Monique was off to Tennessee, and Marcia wanted to move to Jerusalem. "I went to Anglo-Saxon Real Estate there and asked if anybody spoke English. Yona Baumel raised his hand and said, 'I speak American. Will I do?' He and his wife Miriam became great friends of mine." The Baumels' son, Zachary, was one of three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon in 1982 and still missing. "I took the last picture of Zak, at a Yom Ha'atzmaut picnic," says Marcia. Baumel found Marcia a cottage in the Old City, and soon afterward Marcia started working in a jewelry and antiques shop at the Plaza Hotel. But she had neither friends nor neighbors. "The others on the street hadn't yet moved in. It was still dirt and mud and the donkeys were sliding down it. So I was really alone. And I had no telephone because the cables hadn't been laid yet." The aunt who had helped secure Marcia's visa had a house in Talbieh and offered the use of her phone. That was how she got to know the house's caretaker, an Arab man named Fayez, who helped Marcia renovate her cottage. Soon, she and Fayez - a former mounted policeman for the British Mandate government - became inseparable. He brought her to his West Bank village to meet his wife and children. She brought him to the States to meet her mother and children. For 18 years, until his death in 2003, she was known as his "Jerusalem wife." "Since he died, I keep going on as if he'll show up tomorrow," Marcia says. DAILY LIFE About 12 years ago, she moved to Arnona. "After the narrow alleys of Jerusalem stone, I wanted to buy something with a garden and a view," she says. The house is decorated with family photos and Marcia's paintings. Since the 1980s, she has taught painting and drawing at the Jerusalem headquarters of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, donating student fees to the organization. "That's been my gift," she says. She is serving her second term as chairman of the AACI National Seniors, coordinating activities for English-speakers in their golden years. "We started out as Americans and Canadians, but we have a lot of South Africans and Australians. I think we even allowed two New Zealanders to come in," she jokes. "The best thing about AACI is that we're apolitical and we also don't say you have to be Jewish to be a member or a volunteer." Monique's family lives on a kibbutz in the Galilee; Ranee's in Maryland. One of Ranee's children is here for a year at Bar-Ilan University, and Marcia is trying to arrange a trip also for her "grandson" from Yiu Kwang. WORST THING ABOUT LIFE IN ISRAEL "The constant pressure. We don't have a government yet, and we have newcomers coming in a terrible state and there aren't enough jobs or educational opportunities go around. I have a sense of helplessness to do anything about all this." BEST THING ABOUT LIFE IN ISRAEL "I'm home. And I can't say that without choking up. It just blows my mind. When my mother died, my daughters and my brother said, 'Come back to the States.' I said, 'I can't do that.' I can't leave this country. I have trouble even leaving Jerusalem."