Sara Manobla: The matriarch of Israel Radio’s English broadcast

Sara Manobla was a permanent presence in the lives of English-speaking listeners to Israel Radio for nearly four decades.

Sara Manobla in a radio studio in the 1960s (photo credit: COURTESY SARA MANOBLA)
Sara Manobla in a radio studio in the 1960s
WHILE ISRAEL’S state-supported radio network until 2017, Israel Radio, is known in Hebrew as “Kol Yisrael,” which translates literally as the “voice of Israel,” for nearly 40 years the true voice of Israel for millions of English-speaking listeners was the velvet voice of Sara Manobla. Those warm, engaging, English tones were quite unmistakable, and very loved.
Until her retirement in 1999, Manobla was head of English Programs for Israel Radio. Over many years the programs she commissioned, the topics she covered, the interviews she conducted were required daily listening not only for English-speaking Israelis, but also for visitors to Israel from English-speaking countries, and for a vast, global audience of people eager to hear about life in Israel.
In its heyday, up to five English-language broadcasts were carried by Israel Radio each day. Several went out both on the domestic radio channels and, via shortwave, to the world. Some were intended only for the worldwide English-speaking audience. Each began with a newscast, and then came Manobla’s variegated picture of life in Israel – its culture, politics, sport, business – so appreciated by her huge English-speaking audience.
The people of note who passed through her radio studio over the years are legion – many interviewed by Manobla herself. Get her reminiscing, and tales abound of her encounters with Israel’s great and good – with presidents Yitzhak Navon, Ephraim Katzir, Ezer Weizmann and Chaim Herzog, with prime minister Levi Eshkol, with a young Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his career. And with Golda Meir while prime minister, in a historic two-way broadcast between Jerusalem and the States. Before they went on air, Golda ushered the radio team into her kitchen, where she insisted on making and serving refreshments all round.
But Sara spread her net far wider than the political scene. Playwright Arthur Miller, flautist James Galway, conductor Zubin Mehta, the Lord Chief Justice of England… the list seems endless.
Ursula Sara Towb, born in Newcastle in the north of England, came from Jewish families already well-rooted in English soil. Both her parents, and even one of her grandparents, had been born in England, though the other three had emigrated to the UK from Lithuania. Her paternal grandmother, she discovered, had come from the Lithuanian town of Zagare.
Shortly before her retirement Sara, encouraged by a cousin who had started investigating the family’s origins, joined a small party that visited Zagare in 1998 to celebrate its 800th anniversary. It was not an entirely easy occasion. Their hosts were well aware that in 1941 the Nazis, assisted by local collaborators, had rounded up virtually the entire Jewish population of the district – some 3,000 people – and slaughtered them. The Jewish visitors discovered little acknowledgement among their hosts of this Lithuanian involvement in the massacre.
Over the following years Sara worked patiently, with her cousin and others, in helping all those concerned – Jews and Lithuanians alike – to face up to, and to come to terms with, what had happened. The journey was painstakingly slow, but their efforts were finally rewarded on July 13, 2012. In Zagare’s town square Sara presided over a ceremony to unveil a plaque commemorating the annihilation of the town’s entire Jewish community. Part of the dedication read: “German military occupiers and their Lithuanian collaborators brought the region’s Jewish men, women and children to this square on 2 October 1941. Shooting and killing of the whole Jewish community of Zhager began here and continued in the forests nearby. About 3,000 Jewish citizens were killed.”
For everyone who participated in this ceremony the event marked not only an acknowledgment and an acceptance of what had happened, but also a step toward reconciliation.
Later Manobla wrote a riveting account of her long involvement with this project, and her own voyage of self-discovery that it encompassed. She called her book “Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians confront the past.” In it she includes the surprising postscript to the story. Through sheer persistence she discovered, living in Jerusalem, an elderly woman who, as a little girl, had been hidden with her grandmother in Zagare by the Levinskas family. Manobla passed the facts to Yad Vashem, and in due course, in a ceremony in Zagare, the family was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Sara was born into a family with music at its heart. A baby grand piano and an old-fashioned wind-up gramophone with a huge horn feature largely in her childhood memories. Graduating from Durham University, she set her heart on joining the BBC. In those pre-equality days the portal for so many women who later carved successful careers in that quintessentially British organization was a secretarial post. Sara became secretary to the Music Organizer, Television. But not for long. She was soon progressing up the career ladder, and by 1960 was producing foreign language radio broadcasts for the BBC World Service.
Satisfying as the job was, it was not satisfying enough. In March 1960 she sailed from Marseille to Israel for an extended vacation. Six months later she resigned from the BBC, made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem. Desperately in need of a job, she presented herself at the offices of Israel Radio with not a word of Hebrew, but with her BBC credentials. By some miracle of timing or good fortune, someone with radio experience was required. News of her presence reached a producer. He picked up the phone. “Tell the girl from the BBC to go to Studio 2.” Her life’s work with Israel Radio had begun.
Four years later she married Eli Manobla, a Jerusalem-born architect and artist, and they had three children. By 1964 she had been promoted to Head of English Programs, heading a team of radio journalists and filling a busy schedule of overseas and domestic broadcasts. In the early days, Israel Radio programs were not transmitted to the States. When eventually shortwave transmissions to the US began, a torrent of mail from American listeners overwhelmed the office.
But the English language broadcasts from Israel were also reaching into the heart of the Soviet Union. In 1977 the Cold War was at its frostiest. Contacts with the West were heavily discouraged. Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate to Israel − refuseniks, as they came to be known − were often dismissed from their jobs, reduced to poverty and sometimes subjected to long terms of imprisonment.
Shortwave radio broadcasts from the free world were routinely jammed – that is, a piercing continuous sound was transmitted on the same wavelength, thus making it nearly impossible to hear what was being said. Israel Radio’s Russian broadcasts were subjected to this treatment. By some oversight those in English were not. So when Manobla, representing Israel at an international conference of journalists in Moscow, in 1977, was able to meet a group of some 20 refusenik Soviet scientists, she was greeted as an old friend. “We know your voice. We tune into your shortwave broadcasts.”
On her return to Israel Radio, Manobla contacted activist groups such as the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and launched a weekly broadcast report on refusenik activities called “Let My People Go.”
From 1978 to 1980, taking extended leave, Manobla left for Canada with her family. While her husband pursued his studies, she became director of the Canadian Zionist Federation’s Pacific Region office. She returned to take up her post at what might be described as the heyday of Israel Radio’s English radio story. Programs covering every aspect of life in Israel were being broadcast domestically and across the world 24 hours a day.
But change was on the horizon. Suddenly, in June 1991, the Israel Broadcasting Authority announced its intention of drastically reducing its foreign language broadcasts. Despite vigorous public protests no government action was taken, and the cuts went ahead. All the same something remained of the old program pattern – but not for long. The coup de grace came in 1995. All radio broadcasts in English other than the news were to end.
The axe fell shortly before Manobla’s retirement. For a year or two she and her staff were transferred to the English newsroom to prepare and read the daily news bulletins. Then, in 1999, she finally left Israel Radio.
Now her chief passions in life, apart from her family, are music and travel. She plays piano, flute and cello in amateur chamber groups and orchestras, and she delights in travelling within Israel and abroad to music festivals and workshops where she also sometimes performs with amateur musical groups.
Sara Manobla was a permanent presence in the lives of English-speaking listeners to Israel Radio for nearly four decades. Her voice was, and remains, unmistakeable, associated in people’s minds with a civilized, liberal view of the world, in general, and Israel, in particular. She still regularly meets strangers who recognize her the moment she starts speaking. Whether she realizes it or not, there are countless people in Israel and across the globe who have the warmest memories of what she contributed to their lives, and regard her still as their friend.
The author is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at