A loving journey across the Holy Land

Ruth Corman’s short stories offer an uplifting insider’s peek at Israel and its people.

The author picks oranges in the beautiful land of Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
The author picks oranges in the beautiful land of Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a short story titled “From Sickness to Health,” Ruth Corman tells the tale of the Hansen Hospital, established in Jerusalem in 1897 by German Protestants to treat lepers. She has the fortune of meeting Ruth Wexler, a nurse who worked at the hospital from 1988 until its closure in 2000.
Today, Corman writes happily, “this splendid historic building that once housed and cared for patients has been converted into an arts and music center.”
She cites it as an example of how a “leprosarium” once regarded with fear and ignorance can, with a bit of imagination, be transformed into something positive and creative.
The story is classic Corman, who turns the sublime and the sacred into fascinating subjects. A gifted writer and photographer, her love of Israel, the land and its people shines through the pages of her new book, which is a collection of precious vignettes crafted from her own personal experiences, and juxtaposed with her own beautiful photographs.
Corman, an art consultant who has organized important exhibitions in both Britain and Israel, divides her time between London and Jerusalem with her husband, Charles. Her first major book, Israel through My Lens: 60 Years as a Photojournalist, is an epic account of the legendary Israeli photographer David Rubinger’s life.
Unexpected Israel, she says, was inspired by a book titled India Exposed by Clive Limkin (Abbeville Press, 2009), which comprises short, pithy and amusing texts accompanied by the author’s brilliant photography.
“I decided to try to show a side of Israel that rarely receives attention – the creative, amusing, quirky and moving aspects of the country,” she says.
“I began the book over four years ago and to date there are more than a hundred stories, each with my accompanying photographs.”
Many of these stories have been published as a monthly column in The Jerusalem Post, to provide readers with a break from the intense opinion pieces that the paper is known for. Since the publication of her column began, together with an Internet blogsite that she opened, Corman has received hundreds of emails from readers around the world.
“One surprise was the reaction from Israelis,” she remarks.
“I delight in receiving their letters thanking me for introducing them to aspects of Israel about which they were unaware.”
The first story in the collection is a good example of this – Corman’s encounter with Tsegue-Mariam, a nonagenarian nun and world-renowned composer of piano music from Addis Ababa who has lived for three decades sequestered in an Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem.
“Her story reads like a movie script, and the more I researched the more dramatic it became,” Corman says. Meeting Tsegue- Mariam becomes “a rare privilege” for the author.
“She fervently believes it is the hand of God that provides her with the ability, strength and dedication to achieve all that she has done.”
A completely different story is that of Gershon Luxemburg, a boxing champion from Uzbekistan who now runs a boxing school in a converted underground bomb shelter in a working-class area of Jerusalem.
Luxemburg, the astute author points out, is not interested in teaching kids just to throw punches, but rather to grow to respect themselves and others, regardless of their background.
“I don’t care if they become boxing champions, so long as they become champions in life,” he tells her.
Corman weaves her tapestry through people and places, using drama, emotion and humor to convey her message.
She dons combat equipment to see how Eli Beer’s United Hatzalah saves lives. She takes pride in describing the “Great in Uniform” program in the IDF for soldiers with special needs. She explores how 15,000 youths of different backgrounds have made friends through soccer via a program sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace. She delights in the flight of migratory birds and Israeli aircraft through the eyes of ornithologist Yossi Leshem.
She explains how Kibbutz Dan became a key player in the caviar industry to satisfy the fishy tastes of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. She deliciously peels the fruits most associated with Israel, sabras and oranges, and in the latter case, recalls the “orange deal” between Israel and Russia. She shares her love of beaches, and even discovers a “Matkot Museum” for beach-paddle enthusiasts in Tel Aviv established by “Amnon the Cannon.”
In her story “A Caring Society,” she declares: “Nowhere in the world do I feel personally safer than in Israel. Some may express disbelief after reading the tabloids, but it its true.”
To illustrate her point, she says that should there be a fracas on the street here and you need help, “everyone will come to your assistance without hesitation – Arabs, Druse, Christians and Jews, even old ladies wielding handbags.”
She tells of an amusing encounter she had on a bus in Jerusalem. When the driver chastised her for giving him an NIS 200 note (the fare was NIS 3.50), she searched her bag for small change and found only one shekel and an unopened pack of mints. Although initially laughing and refusing the mints, Corman insisted he take them.
“I told him that every time he ate one he would remember me, and that, as I am a writer, I would use this incident as part of a story.”
Unexpected Israel is full of tangy mints, just like Corman’s pack that she gave the bus driver, and they leave a lasting taste, with a desire for more. It makes for easy bedside reading, and serves well as a coffee- table book with its exhilarating tales and exceptional illustrations.
Like most of the stories it contains, the book has a happy ending.
On April 20, 1987, Corman found herself on an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to London, together with a child with a severe liver condition, whose only hope of survival was an immediate liver transplant in England. She discovered from her worried parents that they needed £45,000 for the operation, and Corman proceeded to spend the flight collecting the money from the other passengers to foot the bill.
“I am asked what prompted me to do it,” she writes.
“I have no idea, except that it seemed a good idea at the time. I was glad I was there and the experience confirmed my belief in the innate goodness of people.”
This is a good book and a good read, in every sense. Its official launch is scheduled to take place at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on May 15.
I warmly recommend it as a gift to a loved one – or even to yourself!