My Word: Family treasures, Bar Kochba’s cave and a message in time

It was uncanny to discover that the two women in the picture my grandfather had chosen to paint in England in 1967 were not only real people but people who worked with me in Israel.

Joseph Cornbleet's painting of the Bar Kochba archeological dig.   (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Joseph Cornbleet's painting of the Bar Kochba archeological dig.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
It started with a cave, a picture and a family history. But it grew. It’s a story I have told before. But there have been twists in the plot.
In a column I wrote for The Jerusalem Post’s 75th anniversary in November 2007, I described a painting that hangs on the wall of my living room in Jerusalem and has ties to both my families – the one I was born into and the Post family I joined 31 years ago.
It was painted by my London-born grandfather, Joseph (Joe) Cornbleet, who visited Israel for the first (and only) time in 1967. A former grocer, he had recently retired and taken up painting as a hobby. During his trip he bought some postcards to take back to England to copy in oils. Among them was an image of the Bar Kochba archaeological excavations, set in the dramatic scenery of Nahal Hever, near the Dead Sea.
An ardent Zionist, like my grandfather, I inherited the painting after his death. Naturally, I treasured it – even before I realized that there was a lot more to it than met the eye.
The painting moved with me from London to Karmiel and on to Jerusalem. I discovered its full worth only in the early 1990s when, by chance, the Post’s remarkable environmental columnist D’vora Ben-Shaul came to my apartment to use my computer after her car had broken down and she couldn’t get back to her house in Rosh Pina. She finished typing her column, offered me sensible advice about my pets and then looked up at the picture and declared: “That was painted from a postcard.”
How did she know?
“The woman with her back to you is me and the woman with the red headscarf is Martha.”
I was stunned. Martha was Martha Meisels, another much loved Post writer, famed for her consumer column.
It was uncanny to discover that the two women in the picture my grandfather had chosen to paint in England in 1967 were not only real people but people who worked with me in Israel. It was as if someone who had got into the frame of a holiday snapshot had come alive in my living room.
Neither D’vora nor Martha could recall the name of the third character in the picture, but I haven’t given up hope of one day identifying him. I have learned that with this painting anything is possible.
Martha died tragically in 1995 and D’vora died 10 years later. Since their deaths, I have treasured the painting even more, as a reminder of my grandfather and two wonderful women. And that is what led me to write the original story.
As soon as it appeared I received an email from a reader. “Imagine my surprise when I opened your weekend magazine and saw a painting, which now hangs on the wall of a family in a house in Ramat Eshkol,” wrote Sonja Illouz of Moshav Shoresh. Her artist mother, Adele Grossman, like my grandfather, had seen the postcard and copied it in a similar style.
“They both painted the same painting, in England, and both pictures have ended up, having traveled far and wide, here in Jerusalem,” enthused Illouz. “It certainly is a small world!”
THE WORLD was to become even smaller.
Prominently placed on the wall opposite the sofa, the painting usually attracts the attention of visitors and I’m always eager to tell the tale of coincidences. From the moment she first saw it, more than 17 years ago, one former neighbor and friend could not get the picture out of her mind. There was something familiar about it. A childhood memory.
Florence Touati-Wachsstock was born and raised in France. A painting used to hang in her grandparents’ bedroom in Paris. “I remember looking at it and wondering what it was supposed to represent,” she told me this week, nine years after we had last discussed the picture.
The painting was by her great-grandfather, Dr. André Meyer (1895-1979), who lived in Mulhouse, Alsace. Meyer was the stuff that family legends are made of. He was a renowned radiologist who worked with Marie Curie in his youth. During World War II, he was a member of the Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo, sentenced to death and liberated in an attack on his prison just one day before the date of his execution.
My grandfather, who in his youth had fought fascist thugs in London and served in the British Home Guard during the war, would have been impressed.
Florence and her family now live in Ma’alot-Tarshiha in northern Israel. Her surprise email this week came with a gift – a photo of the painting that Meyer had painted. It was unmistakably the same image that inspired my grandfather and Illouz’s mother. There was D’vora, with her back to me – frozen in time – and there was a young Martha, her black hair mostly covered by a red headscarf.
After her grandparents died, Florence’s uncle, Binyamin Touati, had inherited the painting and stored it in his home in Paris. Two years ago, he made aliyah, and the painting now hangs on a wall in his home not far from mine in Jerusalem.
I ALMOST didn’t write this column. The painting for me is priceless, but I realize that as stories go it might not be worth the proverbial thousand words this week. On Tuesday, November 12, Israel killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Bahaa Abu al-Ata, an arch terrorist, in Gaza. The PIJ responded by launching hundreds of rockets on Israel, forcing the population of almost half the country into shelters. Businesses were closed, weddings postponed or moved and schoolchildren got a Middle Eastern version of a snow day at home. Among the most poignant images was the sight of the incubators of the neo-natal intensive care unit at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital being rushed to the underground shelter, as if the premature babies didn’t have enough of a struggle to stay alive.
The same day, as the rocket barrage continued, the European Union court ruled that Israeli food products produced over the pre-1967 (or 1948) line must be labeled as coming from “an Israeli settlement.” It’s a move that singles out Jewish goods and Israel alone. (When was the last time you saw a label that read “Made in Tibet” instead of “Made in China”?)
I went home from work, exhausted, and stared at the painting. And it was there, in Bar Kochba’s cave, that I found consolation.
Florence had mentioned that her family believed that Meyer copied the painting from a book by Israeli archeologist and former IDF chief of staff Yigael Yadin. In 1960, Yadin had found, among other things, a treasure trove of letters by Shimon Bar Kochba, who led the revolt against Rome from 132 to 135 CE.
Reviled by some as being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the rebellion and the loss of Judea, Bar Kochba is considered by others to be a shining example of a warrior who fought foreign domination. It took two years for the Romans to ultimately beat Bar Kochba’s fighters at Betar. They mobilized 12 legions, including those led by Julius Severus, the commander of Roman forces in Britain. Hadrian, the Roman emperor, then banned circumcision, Sabbath observance and Torah studies; barred Jews from Jerusalem; and changed the name of Judea to Syria Palestina.
All these centuries later, Bar Kochba would be able to recognize the idea of economic warfare and attempts to erase Jewish links to Judea and Jerusalem. He would be amazed by the rockets being launched from Gaza, but probably – like me – would consider the Iron Dome anti-missile system to be a modern miracle.
And what would he make of the story of the paintings?
Yes, Israel is under fire – literally and in other ways – but here we are. Where are the Romans?
Two thousand years later, Jews still pray, talk, argue and dream in Hebrew while Latin is as much use as a catapult in an age of missile warfare. And here are the three paintings – all of them found in homes in Jerusalem.
Family belongings become heirlooms precisely because of the sense of belonging they provide. If walls could talk, the wall in my living room probably wouldn’t have too much to reveal, but my grandfather’s painting displayed there says a lot. And it might not have had its final word.
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