Editor's Notes: The POSTman knocks twice

Avraham Avi-hai returns to the Post after 60 years.

Avraham Avi-hai (photo credit: Henrietta Avi-hai)
Avraham Avi-hai
(photo credit: Henrietta Avi-hai)
‘Knock, knock!” “Who’s there?” Wearing his characteristic fedora, Avraham Avi-hai beams as he strides into The Jerusalem Post’s new offices on Jaffa Road, 60 years after he was hired to write for the newspaper by founding editor Gershon Agron.
“It was wonderful working at the Post in those days,” the avuncular Avi-hai says, in his mellifluous Canadian accent.
“It was an immediate entrée into the elite of Jerusalem.”
Avi-hai, who made aliya with his wife, Hanna, from Toronto in 1952, and now lives in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe with his second wife, Henrietta, is a natural raconteur whose mind at the age of 82 is as sharp as ever.
He has just published – in English on Amazon – A Tale of Two Avrahams, a novel originally printed in Hebrew in 2008.
“The book combines the two genres of a modern thriller and historical fiction,” he says. “Considering today’s heightened conflicts between religious extremism and moderation and humanism, it is uniquely relevant.”
After reporting for the Post and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1950s, Avi-hai worked as a senior civil servant in the offices of prime ministers David Ben- Gurion and Levi Eshkol (writing the latter’s English speeches for 10 years), advised legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, established the Rothberg School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and served as world chairman of United Israel Appeal-Keren Hayesod for 10 years before retiring.
“Gershon Agron hired me to work for the Post back in the summer of 1953, and in the year I worked under him went from the Jerusalem and police beats to economic to cabinet and foreign affairs, all under my maiden name, Syd Applebaum,” he relates.
How did he get the job at the Post? “I wrote a letter to Agron on my portable typewriter – hunt-and-peck, with two fingers – from the religious kibbutz which we had joined on arrival in Israel. Agron called me in, talked to me, and said, ‘Here take this,’ and he gave me a piece of news to work on. It was early in the morning, and Marlin (Moshe) Levin was the slot man.
“I brought him the piece, and he said, ‘You’re hired – for 160 lirot a month.’” But at the end of the month, when Avi-hai “went to the wicket” to claim his salary, he realized that Agron had forgotten to tell the accounts department that he had been hired. Agron apologized, and his first salary was soon paid in cash, as was the custom in those days.
Following months of earning more bylines in the paper than usual in “those stingybyline days,” he complained to Agron that he was still earning “a beginner’s salary.”
Agron immediately approved a raise of 20 lirot a month.
“In those days, I wore a fedora tilted back while typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth,” Avi-hai says. “They were romantic days when reporters were seen that way in black-and-white movies.”
He remembers that one day, some staff members decided to call a strike over pay, which he opposed.
“I was very uncomfortable, and I found myself in a revisionist position: when you’re building the country, you don’t strike! Agron calls in everybody and he gets up there, and says, ‘Why, you young pups, you should be paying me for teaching you such a trade!’ It was a wonderful performance. As far as I can recall, there was no strike in the end.”
Avi-hai relates what he considers a quintessential Agron story.
“One Saturday night, I came in with a scoop. The first major event to be held in the unfinished Binyanei Hauma building was the Kibush Hashmama (Conquest of the Desert) exhibition.
“They had overspent their budget by a huge sum.
When I brought the story in, on pages I had typed at home that evening, Marlin Levin said, ‘Why didn’t you call me and tell me? I would have saved more space.’ “But it led page three. In those days, the paper had only four pages, with page one for foreign and defense news. The report opened with the amount, let’s say 270,000 lirot, actually spent, as compared to the budgeted 130,000.
“The next day Agron called me in and said that it was an excellent piece of work. ‘But if I had been writing it, I would have written that they spent two lirot for every lira they took in.’ He was right, of course.”
What was Agron like as a boss? “Agron was a good editor.
He had a wide view of the world and a great devotion to Zionism. After 23 years as editor of the Post, he became mayor of Jerusalem in 1955, and tragically died in office in 1959.”
As for his new English book, Avi-hai says it contains two parallel stories.
“The book is about two heroes by the name of Avraham – one modern-day, Avraham Ben Hayim, a journalist who uncovers corruption in the extreme right-wing and ultra-Orthodox leadership – and the other who lived 400 years ago, Avraham dé Pomi, who criticized Catholic tenets. Both flee from the threat of death, one from renegade Jewish fanatics, and the other from the Inquisition.”
Asked whether the story is autobiographical, Avi-hai laughs.
“Partially,” he says, ambiguously.
In the book, he writes: “Everything in this story exists in the realm of the possible.
The modern tale, that of Avraham Ben Hayim, reflects part of the present day reality in Israel, but is fictional in all its characters and situations.
“The places where the tale unfolds were all personally and carefully researched. The renaissance tale of Avraham dé Pomi is based on historical reality.”
As he dons his Panama fedora and leaves the Jerusalem Post offices, Avi-hai promises to write a regular column for the newspaper on his encounters with Israeli leaders from Ben-Gurion to Begin. Because this is his second incarnation at the paper, he has decided to call the column “The POSTman knocks twice.”Avraham Avi-hai’s new book, A Tale of Two Avrahams, can be found on www.amazon.com.
His website is www.avi-hai.com and he can be contacted at [email protected]