Embroidering the past

Naomi Chizik Ayalon's will be lighting a torch at a memorial ceremony for the fighters killed at Tel Hai, one of whom was her aunt, Sarah Chizik.

Naomi Ayalon 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Naomi Ayalon 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If only trees could talk. The 83-year-old cedar of Lebanon, planted when the city of Herzliya was a mere village, could very well tell the story of the couple who planted it and cared for it like a child. But Naomi Chizik Ayalon, who grew up alongside the cedar, can do so in its place. When she was a year old and her brother Amnon was five, her father, Baruch, bought 10 dunams (2.5 acres) in Herzliya at 10 liras per dunam and relocated his family from Jerusalem so they could begin a new life among the orchards. "We moved here because my mother didn't want to live in the city," says Ayalon, who was born five days after Herzliya was founded. Even today, when she looks out her window, she can see the cedar her parents planted in 1925. Ayalon's mother, Sarah, wrote a book, Baruch Benetivuto, in which she describes how after the couple planted the cedar, they were worried it wouldn't survive. Its growth was slow at first, but to the couple's delight, it started showing progress in its sixth year. Baruch Chizik had studied agriculture in his native Ukraine in hopes of one day moving to Palestine. As an apprentice, he held a few gardening jobs on the estates of the Russian aristocracy. In 1906, he left his birthplace and moved to Palestine. When drafted into the Turkish army, instead of serving in the infantry, he was sent to Syria and named senior gardener in charge of improving the landscaping in Damascus. By the time Chizik returned to pre-state Palestine, he was somewhat of an expert in his field, Ayalon says. Nevertheless, he continued his research on plants and published an encyclopedia called Otzar Hatzemahim ("Trove of Plants"). Later, he combined his horticultural wisdom with his knowledge of the Bible, and came up with a series of heartwarming, plant-related stories. Some he invented; others had a biblical basis. In 1930, he published his fables under the title Tzimhiel, named for the angel of vegetation. He dedicated the book to the memory of his sister Sarah, who was killed at Tel Hai, and brother Ephraim. In one fable, Chizik describes how Moses, standing on Mount Nebo the day he died, felt a dry plant against his leg. He asked the Almighty if this was a sign that he, too, would dry up and pass away. Instead of answering, God told Moses to "take some water and pour it onto this vegetation." As soon as water hit the plant, its stem straightened and it turned into a rose. God then answered Moses's question, saying: "Don't fear, Moses, my servant. Your soul and your memory will be blessed like this plant, forever." After hearing this, Moses was at peace. Other fables in Tzimhiel tell of friendship between the vine and the fig tree and of the plants that refused to participate in the murder of Absalom. Ayalon's creative life was always very much intertwined with her father's. Her first sketches, done when she was only a teenager, were for Chizik's plant encyclopedia. Many years later, she wanted to republish her father's stories, but was told they would be a flop. In an attempt to bring these legends to life in a more commercially viable manner, she considered illustrating them. But instead, she picked up a needle and thread and started to embellish them with embroidery. Unlike her work with pencil and brush, she only took up embroidery after retiring from a 30-year teaching career. In 2003, Ayalon finally republished Tzimhiel, with her colorful embroidery as illustrations, bringing alive the Bible-based legends her father had dreamed up. She embroiders not only to bring her father's stories to life, but to stitch a record of her own memories. In February 1997, after she had taken up the art, 73 soldiers died when two helicopters crashed in the North. Ayalon sewed their names onto her tapestry in classic Hebrew script. The mother of one of the fallen soldiers asked for the embroidery, and Ayalon couldn't refuse. The work is due to be hung in the memorial in She'ar Yashuv in Upper Galilee. The walls of her apartment are filled with mosaics and oil paintings, one of which features David Dacko, the first president of the Central African Republic. She painted Dacko's portrait during his first term in office in 1961, when her husband was working in the CAR. Another piece that catches the eye is a tapestry she did after her husband passed away. Here, Ayalon has embroidered 24 squares, each representing an aspect of his life. She doesn't waste any materials, and has even worked her husband's old ties into one of her pieces. Whatever touches Ayalon's heart or eyes later shows itself in her art. She brings out dozens of sketches she has done of friends in her music class, TV characters, her infant granddaughter sucking her thumb as a baby and her adored dog. "I don't waste time. When I'm in line at the doctor's, I watch people and sketch them," she says. From a small community surrounded by orchards, Herzliya's population has grown to more than 80,000. City life has often disconnected artists from nature, but Ayalon always finds ways to reconnect. "I love collecting stones, but I gave up the habit after a hike in Galilee," she reminisces. "On that outing, we were walking among colorful cyclamen on one side and cow dung on the other. Suddenly I saw this beautiful basalt rock. I picked it up and carried it to the car on my head because it was so heavy. After we got home I put it in the sink and 100 little black scorpions jumped out of the holes... I don't know about God, but I started to talk to Him. I promised that I'd never move any rock from its surroundings... "Maybe God put a rock in a certain place so it could hear the sound of the ocean waves. Maybe this rock was meant to stay among the cow dung, near the flowers. Who am I to move it from its home? That was the last time I brought home a rock!" About two decades ago, it became difficult for Ayalon's family to keep up with property taxes. Instead of selling the land, they decided to donate it to the city, and it became known as "Gan Rishonim." The Chiziks' old home remains extant and has been turned into a museum of Herzliya.