Sculptor Varda Yoran's journey through Israel

Varda Yoran’s storied journey led her from China to the US via Israel

Varda Yoran at work (photo credit: ANA DE ORBEGOSO)
Varda Yoran at work
(photo credit: ANA DE ORBEGOSO)
When I meet Varda Yoran in New York, where she now lives, she exudes a graceful elegance, a quality that shines through in her art, especially her sculptures, as well as in her writing.
Having led a fascinating life that began in China more than 90 years ago and took her to Israel, Britain and the United States, Yoran is a delight to interview. As the Agora Gallery in New York, which has exhibited her work, puts it, her “compelling story has informed her equally compelling sculptures.”
As we sit down over tea, the first thing she tells me – knowing that I was once editor of The Jerusalem Post – is that her first job in Israel was at the newspaper. But like any good storyteller, she goes back to the beginning, keeping me in suspense.
“I was born in China, together with my twin sister, on June 6, 1929, in a place named Mukden [Manchuria],” she says. “My parents came from Russia and they were escaping famine and pogroms. They met in a city called Harbin where the people working on the Trans-Siberian railroad were stationed.”
Her birth name was Rose Granevsky, and her sister was named Gissia.
She has fond memories of her youth, attending an American school in Dairen (now Dalien) from the age of eight, and a Jewish school in Tientsin, where she learned basic Hebrew, took piano lessons and began to draw at the age of 10.
“My father struggled in the restaurant business, and my parents did not have a good marriage,” she says. “My life was my sister and friends, my mother [more than my father], our dog, Huffy, going to school and experimenting with art.”
“It wasn’t all bad, though, not by a long shot,” she recalls in her autobiography, titled Me – Because of You. “For one thing, we survived World War II and the Holocaust unharmed. There was no antisemitism in China.”
She elaborates: “We did not leave China under duress. My memories of life in China are not laced with pain. On the contrary, I think of China with nostalgia and warmth, gratitude for their hospitality, and tremendous admiration for their love of beauty, their skill, patience, wisdom and gentleness. My memories surface in my own art and retain a mixture of East and West.”
Rose and Gissia decided to leave China, she says, “because Mao Tse Tung decided he wanted China for the Chinese and all foreigners out. Though I was born in China, I became a foreigner, no longer welcome there. We went to Israel because the UN voted that the Jews had a right to our own homeland.”
She vividly remembers the excitement of David Ben-Gurion declaring the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, after which she and her sister applied for exit visas from China.
“There were delays,” she recalls. “After the regime in China switched to Communism in 1948, we had to apply all over again. So, by the time we got the visa, it was 1949.”
By then, her parents had divorced, her mother remarried and her father returned to Russia. On June 5, 1949, when she and her sister were 20, they traveled to Israel with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee, taking a barge to the Yellow Sea, a ship to Hong Kong and flights via Ceylon and Saudi Arabia.
Leaving home, she says, was traumatic. “One of my stone sculptures, which I called “Exit,” deals with leaving. It depicts a person, shown from the back, carrying a heavy load, which is a part of the body, facing a black door. The load is the person’s past – the hopes, pain, memories, experiences, joys, traditions and values which the person is carrying out through the black door into the unknown. I tried to express the thought that one doesn’t usually choose to leave a situation, relationship or place if it’s good.
“In faraway China, we grew up in a conglomerate of cultures – Russian, Jewish, English, Chinese and Japanese, and were influenced by them all.”
The journey to Israel was difficult, but exciting.
“We landed at Lod airport, which was very small,” she says. “We were welcomed with orange juice. Gissia and I, dressed identically, with large Chinese straw hats, were approached by a young man. He spoke no English and we spoke no Hebrew. He mimicked a camera with his hands and said, ‘Picture?’ We said, ‘OK, picture.’”
They became “cover girls” in a weekly magazine named Dvar Hashavua – “Our claim to fame!” They were taken to an immigrant camp near Netanya, “a beautiful beach town.”
She took the entrance exams to the Bezalel Art Academy, and when she was accepted, she and her sister moved to Jerusalem, where they stayed at Beit Halutzot, a women’s hostel.
And that’s when she started working at the Post.
“Gissia got a job in an office, using her English, shorthand and typing skills,” she says. “I was accepted to the art school, with classes from 8 a.m.-2 p.m., so I needed an evening job. I knew very little Hebrew because, even though we had Hebrew lessons at the Tientsin school, the teacher was a disaster. I got a night job at the English language newspaper, The Palestine Post. While I was working there, the name was changed to The Jerusalem Post.
“My job was typing out the news from abroad, which arrived on a teletype machine, on a ribbon that piled up on the floor. My shift was from 4-9 p.m. If I filled in for the second shift, it was from 9 p.m.-1 a.m. as well. I honed my typing skills and speed in order to keep up with the flow of material. There were classes on Friday, but no work. On Saturday I worked in the morning from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and in the evening from 4.”
She enjoyed her job at the paper, even though she knew deep down that she still wanted to be an artist.
“When I started working at the newspaper, on the first night of Hanukkah, we were all called into the editorial room. They lit the candles and sang all of my songs. The whole country was celebrating my holiday. I suddenly felt I knew where I belonged. I am at home. I am an Israeli. It was a very powerful feeling.
“My routine was very rigid. Art school every day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. except Saturday. Work every evening except Friday, from 4 p.m. until 9, or if I took the second shift, until 1 a.m. I worked Saturday morning and evening. Living at the hostel in a room with three others, I didn’t have the space, or the time, to complete anything I didn’t finish in class. I couldn’t attend lectures, exhibits or even parties, because I went to work.
“At the end of the semester, the principal of the school called me into his office and told me that I wasn’t a serious student. I didn’t attend lectures, I didn’t attend exhibits, my file was almost empty, I was so anti-social, I didn’t even attend parties. He knew I was an immigrant, but he didn’t bother to ask why I wasn’t keeping up with my artwork and how I lived. I was too meek to speak up. If that’s the rule, that’s what it is. I was devastated. I quit. I kept my job at The Jerusalem Post.”
Although the beginning of her life in Israel was tough, she and her sister worked hard, and decided to Hebraicize their names.
“We wanted to feel like Israelis. I didn’t want people to ask, ‘Oh, your name is Rose? So where are you from?’ Everybody came from somewhere and were Israelis, and we came from somewhere and were Israelis. I wanted an Israeli name. Varda is an interpretation of Rose.  My sister changed her name to Galia.”
Two years after Varda and Galia moved to Israel, they were joined by their mother and her husband. Varda began teaching Hebrew at an immigrant camp in Hartuv, near Jerusalem, and later moved to a school in Jerusalem.
Galia, who went to a military camp near Tel Aviv, and was introduced by a young man from Poland in an Israel Air Force officers’ training course named Shalom Yoran to his friend, Avraham. Galia and Avraham married in 1952, and had three children.
“For a wedding gift, I made them a sculpture of the Laughing Buddha for good luck,” Varda says. “This was the first sculpture I made, except for a little one I did during my studies in Bezalel.”
Galia and Avraham invited Shalom on a double date with Varda. “I immediately liked Shalom’s honesty and his views,” she says. “He was pleasant and easy to talk to. He was so genuine, so reliable. He was a decent guy. I respected him. I admired him. I enjoyed his company.”
Varda enlisted in the air force herself, became a social worker at a pilots’ training camp near Petah Tikva and began to paint posters for the officers’ dining room.
“The only one that I have in my home shows a soldier on his way to a court martial,” she says. “I drew him from the back, in his uniform, which is too big and hanging on him and he’s carrying a bucket and broom and brushes, anticipating his punishment – cleaning the latrines.”
Varda and Shalom Yoran got married in 1954.
“Since Shalom and I were both in the air force, we couldn’t afford to get married in a hall,” she says. “Shalom’s aunt Sarna suggested that the wedding should be at her house, in a village outside Tel Aviv. She had a very nice garden where the ceremony could be held.”
Shalom Yoran, who was born Selim Sznycer in 1925, was a Partisan hero during the Holocaust. When the Germans invaded his family’s Polish hometown of Raciaz in 1942, he and his older brother, aged 14 and 18, escaped into the woods.
Their parents ran away and were murdered by the Nazis in Kurzeniec, together with more than 1,000 other Jews, on the eve of Yom Kippur. After surviving the winter in an underground shelter they built, the two brothers joined the Partisans fighting against the Nazis, a heroic struggle documented in Yoran’s 1996 memoir titled The Defiant: A True Story of Jewish Vengeance and Survival.
Following the war, he worked for an organization smuggling Jewish refugees into British Mandate Palestine and assumed several identities on his own journey there, including that of a British soldier and later a dead cousin, Shalom Yoran, in 1946.
When Yoran moved to Palestine, he began writing about his life. Decades later, while he and Varda were clearing out their apartment near Tel Aviv, he found his writings in a suitcase, and worked with Varda translating the notes from Polish.
“When I finally became a ‘legal’ citizen of Palestine, I bore my mother’s maiden name and my cousin’s date of birth,” he wrote.
Yoran helped build Israel’s first two planes from scraps the British left in their camps. He joined the Air Service, the precursor of the Israel Air Force, ahead of the 1948 War of Independence, learned aircraft maintenance in Oklahoma, and later became an executive with Israel Aircraft Industries (the precursor of Israel Aerospace Industries). The Yorans had two daughters, Dafna and Yaelle, who would later have two sons, Kori and Neo. Shalom’s work took them to London for two years and then in 1978 to New York, where he became chairman of a small but successful aircraft manufacturing company called ATASCO (Aircraft Trading and Servicing Co.).
In the meantime, Varda Yoran developed her career in art, becoming a well-known sculptor in Israel, which she still loves and misses. “The best thing in the world that we did is go to Israel, because I wouldn’t have felt at home in any other country. When you come to a new country, you have to fit in. When you come to Israel, you have to contribute in some way. In Israel, we made it happen. That’s how we all felt, my husband in a very large way, me to a lesser extent, but still I contributed, growing and developing with Israel and doing all I could. We were all very proud of what it was and what it is today!”
Varda Yoran’s contemporary figural sculpture has been described as “an exercise in grace.” The hallmark of her work, made from bronze, wood, flexiglass, wax and stone, is her simple use of shape, avoiding superfluous detail while capturing the power of the composition.
“To me, art is a language, non-verbal communication. My voice is sculpture,” she says. “What I try to do is tell a story or express an emotion or thought as clearly as possible, and most of my work is oriented toward people.
“If I’m doing people I do it in a way that is more abstract or minimalized, so that you get the feeling through the movement rather than putting in faces and details like that. Because I want to make it all so very universal, if I’m making a person in any kind of emotional state, it doesn’t have to be a man or a woman. That’s what’s common throughout my work.”
Her work, reflecting her multiple cultures from China to the US, has been exhibited in Israel, North America and Europe. She has large outdoor sculptures on the campus of Tel Aviv University, the Rabin Medical Center, the Israel Air Force Center, and the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum.
In 2003, she recalls receiving a call from Tel Aviv University president, Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, saying that a successful Holocaust survivor named Felix Zandman had been impressed by her work, including one titled “Tai Chi,” displayed on campus and wanted her to do a sculpture to represent his donation of a graduate school of engineering.
The result was a superb sculpture named “Shoah and Revival.” She describes it as follows: “I made a six-foot tall person crossing over a pile of rubble, looking back and pushing forward. The rubble represents destruction. An open book, a piece of countertop, a roof tile, a part of a tombstone with Hebrew letters, and more, all stones, all beautifully finished, all smashed.”
Her whole family flew to Israel for the inauguration in July, 2004 and she was awarded an honorary fellowship by the university a year later.
Sadly, her sister died four months before. Shalom brother, Maurice Sznycer, who moved to Paris after the war and became a professor of antiquities and West Semitic languages at the Sorbonne, died in 2010.
When Shalom died in 2013, Varda created a small bronze sculpture for his grave called “The Lives He Touched,” and made copies with 3-D printing for their daughters.
“My daughters are such a major part of my life, as are their spouses, and my grandsons, each one a success story in their own right,” she says. “Yaellie’s husband, Bernard, is French Catholic; Dafna’s partner, Ana, is Peruvian; Kori’s wife, Vanessa, is Chinese/Japanese. We’re international!” She and Shalom took their family on a visit to China in 2000.
“What a trip that was! I can’t let this opportunity go by without praising the incredible contribution of our designated photographer Kori,” she writes in her autobiography, which was created from in-depth oral history interviews by Los Angeles-based oral historian and writer, Ellie Kahn, of Living Legacies Family Histories. “My 13-year-old grandson was using the brand-new video camera that we had bought the previous day. He captured the unique flavor of Kaifeng, the beauty of the city, the people, the stories, and the character of a truly ancient Chinese place.”
VARDA YORAN lives in Brooklyn, a happy mother and grandmother and an accomplished artist. “When I look back at my life, what stands out in my mind is Meir, the course of whose life I changed, and the Rose Art Foundation,” she says.
She established the Rose Art Foundation, which donates Geri-recliners to immobile patients at nonprofit nursing homes across the US. “We’ve distributed over 750 since 2013,” she says.
Varda met Meir, then a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who was born without arms, when she volunteered as a social worker in Tel Aviv in 1974. She visited him and his family regularly, helping him get prostheses for both arms – until she and Shalom moved to London two years later.  
“By then, there were many things Meir could do on his own, using his prostheses,” she says. “I got another volunteer to take over for me before I left. Several years later, I was told that he had appeared on a TV show that was collecting money for equipment for handicapped children. Meir was attending regular school, and his hobby was wrestling.”
In 2019, she published a book together with Rina Schwimmer on one of her husband’s friends, the legendary Al Schwimmer, a New York-born World War II veteran who smuggled war planes to Israel during the War of Independence and later founded IAI. It is titled, Al, The Israeli Prometheus.
“Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t always legal. Sometimes standing up for your convictions can lead to a criminal conviction,” she writes. “Much like Prometheus, the Greek Titan who defied the gods, Al’s crimes created history; they helped turn the tide of Israel’s War of Independence and gave the nation a fighting chance.”
Varda is forever thankful to her late husband. Shalom Yoran’s book, The Defiant, has been translated into English, Hebrew, Chinese and Russian. “The English version is also available on audio-book, and our younger grandson Neo reads several excerpts from it, the experiences and emotions of his grandfather,” she notes, proudly.
“Shalom’s tenacity, integrity, decency, honesty and love enable me now, even after he passed away, to continue living in comfort and security, surrounded by my incredible family,” she writes with gratitude in her autobiography. “Because of others, because of you.”