The rose of Jericho

Also known as the papaya lady, Rose Bilbool, who died recently at the age of 102, was talented and resourceful.

Rose Bilbool 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Karen Benzian/Jerusalem Post archives)
Rose Bilbool 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Karen Benzian/Jerusalem Post archives)
Recalling Rose Bilbool, whose remarkable life ended three weeks ago at age 102, it is the memory of her mother’s gloves that float to the surface, a mute but insistent marker dividing epochs.
Rose’s family lived in the largest house in Sighet, a town in Hungary which would become part of Romania after World War I.
Most of the inhabitants were Jewish, among them Elie Wiesel’s family. Rose’s father, Mauritius Perl, the son of a rabbi, was a prosperous bridge builder who had made the great turning of the Jewish Enlightenment into the modern world. The family was observant and the Shabbat eve meals, marked by song, would remain with Rose her entire life. Of the eight children, seven would receive doctorates, in medicine and other fields. There was a live-in maid and a governess. And mother’s white gloves. “Mother never left the house without them, winter or summer.”
For Rose, the second youngest child, this age of elegance ended abruptly in 1938 with a brass-knuckled blow to her face. She had just left a Bucharest University auditorium where she had received master’s degrees in pharmacy and biochemistry and second prize in achievement in a class of 600. Three classmates, members of the fascist Iron Guard, accosted her and called her a dirty Jew before striking her.
Informed by a sympathetic professor that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was looking for a research assistant in biochemistry, she applied and in July sailed for Palestine.
Despite her cosseted upbringing, Rose’s temperament proved a natural fit for the turbulent Middle East from the moment she stepped off the boat. The Arab revolt against the British was in progress and she found herself traveling from Haifa Port to Jerusalem in an armored bus with narrow slits for windows and with British army vehicles fore and aft. Near Ramle, a grenade was thrown at the bus. Rose was thrilled. “It was so romantic,” she would recall. “The wild Orient.”
In Jerusalem, she took readily to the lively academic and social life. Many of her peers had similarly left their families behind in Europe. When the outbreak of World War II cut off funding from home, she undertook odd jobs, including a stint at hammering rocks into gravel on road-building projects. “Everyone was doing it, even doctors and lawyers.”
IN MAY 1940 she traveled down to Jericho for the first time with a couple of friends, members of the Hagana. In the marketplace she saw a large green fruit that was new to her. “Papaya,” said the vendor. He wanted a shilling, the amount she earned in a day of rock pounding. “I never paid much attention to money so I bought it.”
Driving back to Jerusalem on the narrow, winding road that then existed, they came upon an overturned car at one of the bends. A British major, apparently inebriated, was pinned beneath the vehicle and they pulled him out. He was bleeding profusely from a deep wound in his thigh.
“We had nothing sterile to stop the bleeding,” she recalled in one of the talks we had over the years. “I took the papaya and ripped it in half. Fruit is sterile. I put it on the wound and tied it in place with a kerchief. It took us an hour and a half to reach Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem and I was certain he would bleed to death. When we took him out he was still alive and the bleeding had stopped. It made me curious about the properties of the papaya.” That curiosity would set the compass for the final decades of her life.
A more immediate turning came when she visited a dentist a few months later.
Aware of her scientific background, he said that supplies of ethyl chloride, which he used as an anesthetic for root canals, had been cut off. He wondered if Rose could produce it. “A diploma means that you can read books,” she related. “I studied the subject in the library and produced it.” She also devised a capsule with capillary action to contain the anesthetic and found a glassblower to make it. The dentist was flabbergasted. He urged her to contact the British, who needed anesthetics desperately for their troops battling Rommel’s army in Libya. The senior medical officer to whom she handed a capsule of ethyl chloride at the King David Hotel, British headquarters in Jerusalem, “almost fell out of his chair,” she recalled. He asked her where her factory was. When she said she had none, the British provided her with an apartment to serve as a laboratory as well as the raw materials she would need for the rest of the war. She received an official commendation for her contribution to the war effort which, she believed, saved the lives of hundreds of British soldiers.
Rose was living a spartan life. “No one in Jerusalem had money in those days. I lived in a rented room on Jaffa Road and considered myself lucky to have a room to myself.
It was beautiful.” Breakfast was a piece of dark bread with a grapefruit squeezed onto it. On weekends, she would hand wash her laundry in her sixth-floor walkup. A high point of the week was Shabbat dinner, which she shared every Friday night in the Histadrut Labor Federation hall with her friend Sima, a Beirut-born doctor, and Sima’s doctor husband.
At the end of the war, Rose received a letter from her sister Giselle with bitter news about the family. Their parents and their four brothers had all been murdered in the death camps. Giselle and another sister had survived Auschwitz. The youngest sister had been hidden by a Christian cleric and would married his son after the war.
Giselle eventually settled in Israel.
ROSE USED the money she received for her war work to explore the medicinal qualities of the papaya. Renting two rooms in a Jericho convent from Romanian-speaking nuns, she opened a dispensary and traveled there once a week with a doctor whom she hired. He examined patients, almost all of them Beduin, and Rose distributed to all of them a concoction of papaya extract and sugar. Follow-ups over a period of time suggested that papaya was useful for treatment of ulcers and other stomach problems but she suspected that it might have other uses as well.
As Jewish-Arab tensions increased, a local Arab with whom she was friendly advised her to “go away for awhile.” She closed the dispensary on January 1, 1947. On that very day she met Simon Bilbool. On New Year’s Day, Sima asked Rose to join her for tea with an acquaintance from Beirut. Rose brought her friend Paula, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen who was having trouble adjusting to Palestine. Simon Bilbool made an instant impression. “He was a wonderful- looking man, a true British gentleman,” Rose recalled. He was in fact an Iraqi Jew but he had studied at Oxford. Rose did not speak English at the time (she would eventually speak nine languages) so they conversed in French.
Bilbool, 48 and unmarried, plainly enjoyed the company of the two women Sima had brought. They drank coffee with white sugar, something the women had last done before the war. When they parted, Bilbool invited them to join him again the next day for tea, to be followed by a movie and dinner. “When we got home,” Rose related, “I said, ‘Listen, Paula, this is a very nice man. Capture him and everything will be all right for you.’” Rose herself had no thoughts along those lines. She had still not recovered from an intense relationship with a Hungarian-born architect seven years earlier in Jerusalem. It had ended traumatically with a betrayal of the spirit that Rose could not forgive. Despite numerous would-be suitors, she had avoided further entanglements since.
At dinner the next day, Bilbool said he was departing the following day to attend to some business in Haifa, and would return from there to Beirut. He invited Paula, who lived in Haifa, to join him in his taxi. As they parted, Rose said she envied him his proximity to the ski slopes in Lebanon. “If I send you a visa, would you come to Lebanon?” he asked.
Rose laughed at his pleasantry. “To ski again,” she said “I’d go to the end of the world.”
A few days later, Rose received a letter from Paula. “We’re going out to dinner every evening but all he wants to talk about is you. I’m getting fed up praising you.”
A week later, a messenger arrived from Beirut bearing a box of candy and other small gifts. This was followed by a 100- word cable containing her visa number and giving precise instructions for her trip.
Rose called Paula to ask if she had received an invitation as well. She hadn’t.
“I went to Sima and said ‘What thinks this man? That I, a woman alone, would go there and become his mistress?” Sima laughed. “If you don’t like him you can stay at my mother’s house.”
Rose brooded over it for 10 days. She would indeed love to ski but she had no romantic feelings for Bilbool, a businessman 12 years her senior. At the urging of friends, some of whom offered to lend her clothing to supplement her meager wardrobe, she decided in the end to accept the invitation. The taxi trip, via Nablus, took eight hours. Bilbool was waiting for her at the taxi station with a bouquet of white roses. He led her to a large white car with a driver behind the wheel. At his apartment, two chambermaids and a cook were waiting inside the door, each with bouquets of white roses. Bilbool showed her through the 10-room apartment. There were white roses in each room.
“And this is your room.”
On the bed was a robe made of Damascene silk. Matching slippers were on the floor. There was also a golden cigarette lighter, two Parisian shawls and nylon stockings.
“I said to myself, ‘All right, this man thinks he can buy me.’” After dinner had been served, they retired to the fumoire where Bilbool and his guests would retire for coffee and cigarettes.
The moment of truth had come.
“Mr. Bilbool,” said Rose. “Now that we’ve had our coffee I’d like to pour some clear water into the glass.” It was a translation of a Hungarian saying. “I must tell you something.
It was very nice of you to invite me and I want to thank you for all the presents.
But I want to tell you frankly, I have not come here to be your mistress.”
At her first pause, he asked “Are you done?” “Yes.”
“Can I speak now?” “Yes.”
“It’s really very simple. I brought you here for one purpose. I want to marry you.”
Rose groped for words. She had only met this man on two evenings in Jerusalem and they had never been alone together until now. She had not for a moment had the slightest romantic inclination towards him.
“Don’t give me your answer immediately,” he continued. “Take your time. You must get to know me.”
Rose took all the time she needed. “I looked at him and said ‘Yes, Simon, I will marry you.” It was the first time she had called him by his first name.
“If anybody had told me half an hour before that I would have said yes I would have said they were crazy. It was his honesty that captured me. I had no thought of marrying him until the moment he asked.”
Simon rose and took from a drawer a new wallet, which he placed in his pocket. “Rozinka,” he said, using for the first time the Hungarian diminutive he had heard her friends call her in Jerusalem, “you will never regret it.”
When she asked why the new wallet, he said “From now on I am a new man and this is a new life.”
Three days later, after the necessary document was received from the Jerusalem rabbinate affirming that Rose Perl was an unmarried woman, their wedding took place in Beirut's Magen Avraham Synagogue.
Rose did not want to wear a white dress because her parents were dead. Simon bought her a beige Christian Dior dress in Beirut. Sima’s mother gave her a brown hat with veil from Paris and lent her a fur coat against the February cold. The wedding was attended by 250 people, none of whom Rose knew except for Simon and Sima’s mother, whom she had just met.
For her honeymoon, she got to do what she had originally come for – skiing among the cedars of Lebanon. She then returned to Jerusalem to put together a trousseau with her friends’ help. The gossip in Café Rehavia and other Hungarian haunts was that Rose Perl had married a wealthy Arab for his money. In Beirut the reaction was the opposite. The large Iraqi Jewish community was incensed that Simon Bilbool had married an Ashkenazi.
On her way back to Beirut, Rose stopped in Haifa with a load of expensive gifts for Paula. When she knocked, her friend opened the door and promptly slammed it in Rose’s face. Paula had concluded that Rose had stolen Mr. Bilbool from her.
Six weeks after her return to Beirut, Rose received a gilded invitation to high tea at the home of the leading light of Beirut society, Donna Maria Sursuc.
There was keen curiosity in Beirut social circles about the woman who had put an end to the long bachelorhood of Simon Bilbool, the prominent Jewish businessman.
Rose, wearing a simple white blouse and gray suit, was ushered by a servant into the salon of the Sursuc home in the fashionable Ashafriya quarter. There were about 35 women in the room. “They were dressed like Christmas trees, dripping with diamonds.”
Madame Sursuc seated Rose next to her and after a few minutes of talk said aloud “You know, Madame Bilbool, if you want to enter high society in Lebanon you must take a lover.”
Said Rose, recalling the scene: “She didn’t want to insult me. She wanted to insult the women listening.
They exchanged husbands, had ‘garçons’ there or in Europe. It was an immoral life you can’t believe.
They would come to tell me their problems. I helped many get abortions.”
For the next 23 years, Rose lived the indolent life of a wealthy woman in the Paris of the East, devoting herself to the boy and girl born to her and Simon and enjoying the company of a few close friends, an elderly mix of European Jews and Christian and Muslim Arabs, several of them doctors. The maid had standing instructions to tell people calling with social invitations: “I regret, but Madame Bilbool is already committed.” Said Rose: “I had my children and my books.” Religious practice was muted but she lit candles on Friday nights, something she had begun doing after learning of her parents’ death.
“The years in Beirut were beautiful but they were empty because they had no Jewish content and because I was not working.”
She was not, however, totally idle. Her contacts with the Hagana had not terminated. Rose periodically sent coded messages in letters she mailed to a “friend” in Rome. It would later occur to me that one of the reasons she decided to travel to Beirut despite her initial reluctance may have been the encouragement of the Hagana, on whose behalf apparently she had first traveled to Jericho.
The Palestinian passport with which she had arrived in Lebanon became invalid the following year with the establishment of Israel. Her stateless status, which her children inherited, was resolved when she wrote to the State Department and appended the British letter of commendation for her services to the war effort. She was granted US citizenship without a quota as a scientist and she and the children were required to spend only two and a half years of residency in the US rather than five.
The arrival in Lebanon in 1970 of Palestine Liberation Organization militiamen under Yasser Arafat following their expulsion from Jordan made the position of the 100,000 Jews in Beirut untenable.
The Bilbools sent their children to Jerusalem via Europe and then followed, having to leave most of their wealth behind.
Simon, already past 70 and not speaking Hebrew, was out of his element in Israel and it was clear that Rose would have to support the family. They had just enough money to buy an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood and a car. Recalling her papaya experiments in the 1940s, Rose rented a villa in Jericho as a laboratory and had a local farmer plant 300 papaya trees for her. She sold her jewelry to cover expenses.
The direction of her work changed when a local Arab asked the “dottore,” as she was addressed, whether she could treat his eczema. When he reported that the papaya cream she had made for him helped greatly, she decided to focus on cosmetics rather than medicine, it being much easier to get a government license for the former. Her hand and face creams in time received wide distribution in drugstores and health stores in Israel and she was soon able to support her family comfortably.
Rose would make the half-hour drive down from her home on French Hill in Jerusalem to Jericho – a descent of 1,200 meters – six days a week even in summer temperatures of 45 degrees, although her car was not air-conditioned. Saturdays were set aside for meeting Arab neighbors in Jericho. “I love the people there,” she said. She would bring rolls, and sometimes cakes, she collected from a large Jerusalem hotel and distribute them to children outside a school.
This gesture proved to be bread cast upon the waters. When the first intifada broke out in 1987, she saw Palestinian youths one morning setting up a barricade on the street near her lab. She halted at a distance and weighed whether or not to continue. “I decided that if I turned around I would not be able to work in Jericho anymore.” She started forward slowly and halted near the youths, who were armed with rocks.
“God bless you,” she called to them, as she leaned out the window. “Please clear away the stones. I want to go to my work.”
For a moment the youths stared back. Then one shouted “That’s the dottore. She used to give us rolls.” A path was opened for her through the roadblock.
During the remaining years of the intifada, no stone was ever thrown at Rose’s Volvo, although there were numerous rock and firebomb attacks on other Israeli vehicles passing through Jericho, some of them fatal.
One day, Rose received a call from the Hungarian Immigrants Association. The architect who had been her first great love some 40 years before had been hospitalized with a stroke and had asked to see her.
Since their affair, he had won the Israel Prize for architecture and achieved international renown but had never married. He recognized her immediately when she appeared at his bedside. “Rozinka, where have you been wandering all these years?” he asked.
When he was transferred to a nursing home outside Jerusalem, Rose would visit twice a week and take walks with him, pushing his wheelchair. Late one night she received a call saying he was in critical condition. She arrived in time for him to die in her arms. “I never told my husband. He wouldn’t have understood. He had an Eastern way of thinking.”
Simon never fully acclimatized in Jerusalem. “It was difficult for him. He had never been poor. It took me a year to get him to accept using paper napkins.
He was like a formal Englishman who could not eat on the same tablecloth both lunch and dinner. But he was a wonderful man. I wish every Jewish woman would have a marriage like I had.” Toward the end, she acquired a dog so that Simon could take it out and have a reason for walking three times a day. He died in 1985. Their son, Francis, an economist, died in 1992, leaving a widow and two children who lived near Rose. Her daughter, Norma, after whom Rose named her face cream, is a doctor and lives outside New York with her husband and son.
After spending half her lifetime in daily contact with the Arab world, Rose was neither peacenik nor hawk. “I like the Arabs – they’re human beings. But peace will take a long time. For the Arabs there is a principle at stake. For us what is at stake is ourselves.”
Her life in Beirut remained an entertaining memory but she had no regrets about having abandoned it.
“It was something different, you see. Madame Bilbool with two sleep-in maids and a driver. That was not me. Here [in Israel] I am myself.”
Always on the Go
Rose Bilbool was born on December 9, 1909 and died on March 15 at the age of 102. Until a year and a half ago, say relatives and friends, her mind was functioning well, although there were occasional weak periods. In 2010 she was still being driven down to Jericho once a week by a family friend, Yona Lavi. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Israelis were no longer permitted to enter the town itself, which meant Rose was cut off from her laboratory. But she would meet her Palestinian assistant, Khaled Riad, at the edge of town and transfer ingredients for the creams that she kept in two deep freezers at home.
Riad, whom she had hired as a young man, would mix and package the creams, handing over the finished products at Rose’s next visit. A distributor would pick them up from her home.
Such was Rose’s good cheer and zest for life that she would receive marriage proposals well into her 80s from elderly men who had read about “the papaya lady” or seen her in television clips. The last proposal Rose received was when she was 92, as far as her daughter can recall.
I drove with her to Jericho for the last time when she was 91. It was after the first rains and the hills were tufted green. Halfway down, a flock of sheep bounded down a slope. She had driven that road almost every day for 30 years yet she looked about her with a smile of wonderment, as if seeing it for the first time. “The desert changes every day,” she said.
The writer is author of a revised edition of The Battle for Jerusalem, just published as an eBook on Amazon.