The secret garden of Kfar Saba

The garden of Baron Felix de Menashe, built in the 1930s, was once a magnet for celebrities.

The future of the garden is being negotiated between the Kfar Saba Municipality and the Eisenberg family, which owns it. (photo credit: COURTESY ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF KFAR SABA)
The future of the garden is being negotiated between the Kfar Saba Municipality and the Eisenberg family, which owns it.
The garden of Baron Felix de Menashe is one of Kfar Saba’s best-kept secrets.
I have lived in the town for over 40 years but had never heard of it until last Passover, when I went on an outing with a group of Kfar Saba residents that took the garden as its starting point – and it came as a surprise to all of us.
According to Matty Eisenberg, a local member of the renowned Eisenberg family that today owns the garden, it is the most important botanical garden in the Jewish state after that of Mikve Israel, the agricultural training school near Tel Aviv.
“It has some extremely rare plants and trees that were brought from all over the world,” he says. “There was a magnificent magnolia tree that gave huge flowers 40 centimeters across – and it disappeared, probably stolen, as it was worth a very large amount of money.”
The story behind this unique garden is one of Zionism, philanthropy and vision. Who was the baron, and how did he come to create a garden in Kfar Saba? Baron Felix de Menashe was a very wealthy Jewish philanthropist who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He was born in 1865 to a family that collaborated with the Austro-Germans before World War I; he was granted the title in 1873 as a result.
De Menashe built schools, hospitals and roads in his native Alexandria and he and his wife, Rosetta, became pillars of the community. During the war he was elected president of the city’s Jewish community and increased his contacts with Chaim Weizmann, who persuaded him to add the Land of Israel to his list of investments.
The baron bought land in Petah Tikva, Netanya and Kfar Saba, which in those days was a small agricultural community made up mainly of orange groves and strawberry fields.
Among his purchases in the early ’30s were 22 hectares (54 acres) of land north of the village, in what is today the green neighborhood of Kfar Saba.
The intention was to build a splendid villa, create a magnificent garden and live out his life in this place. Landscape gardener Yitzhak Kutner was engaged to create the garden, and Lipa Yahalom continued the work.
The plans for the villa were drawn up by Ze’ev Rechter (father of Ya’akov, grandfather of Yoni), but it was never built. The Arab riots at the beginning of the decade, the outbreak of World War II and the bankruptcy of the baron’s Bnei Binyamin bank all contributed to the fact that the house never got past the planning stage.
But a small cottage was built, known as Beit Hanehag, the chauffeur’s house, and Haim and Miriam Yoffe there and oversee the garden. Miriam became famous for talking to her plants, while Haim cultivated the garden, bringing exotic plants and seeds, trying out mangoes and avocados.
Rare oak trees were planted along with an avenue of pines, which served to delineate the entrance and act as a windbreaker for the delicate plants in the garden. During the late ’30s, the site became a “slik” for the Hagana to hide weapons.
One of the Hagana soldiers, Elisheva, lived in the house and worked as a radio operative.
Miriam Yoffe passed her off as the maid, and visitors couldn’t understand why she would serve food and drink to the maid instead of the other way around.
Later, after the establishment of the state, Gan Menashe became a magnet for celebrities.
David Ben-Gurion and actress Hannah Rovina visited, as did author Nissim Aloni.
In 1974 a movie of one of his short stories was filmed there, The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter; Gila Almagor was one of the stars.
The garden became a popular place for schoolchildren to visit, and many a lesson in botany was conducted in its green and peaceful environment.
In 1967 Miriam left the garden and the small house, unable to carry on alone after the death of Haim. Her son, Avraham Yoffe, an IDF general and the head of the Southern Command, wanted to buy the garden from the son of the baron, George de Menashe, but the price was too high. It was instead purchased by entrepreneur Shoul Eisenberg, who tried to change the site’s name to Gan Shaul – though it didn’t catch on.
Another son, Jean de Menashe, a brilliant author and academic who spoke 15 languages, converted to Christianity and became a priest. He died in 1973.
Avraham Yoffe distinguished himself in other ways. Besides being a brave soldier who fought with Orde Wingate in the night squads, he served in the Six Day War with distinction.
In the late ’60s he started the Israel Nature Reserves Authority, the forerunner of Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Being raised in a famous garden, it seems, had a strong influence. He died in 1983.
The future of the garden is now being negotiated between the Kfar Saba Municipality and the Eisenberg family.
“They have to conserve it and open it officially to the public,” says Yardena Weisenberg, the curator of the museum. Matti Eisenberg says there are plans to open a restaurant and a visitors’ center.
The chauffeur’s house, for its part, will probably become a museum – encapsulating the romantic and colorful story of Kfar Saba’s secret garden.