House of memories

Esther Rubin's Caesarea home features the work of her late husband, the artist Reuven Rubin.

reuven rubin 88 (photo credit: )
reuven rubin 88
(photo credit: )
'There isn't a painting or drawing hanging in this house that wasn't chosen by both of us," says Esther Rubin, the widow of painter Reuven Rubin, of her Caesarea home. "Reuven decided where everything would go and it was done with a lot of love." I had often read that the 96-year-old Esther is still beautiful and couldn't quite believe it, until I met her. Those deep blue eyes, that fine bone structure, the transparent complexion. No wonder the great painter fell madly in love with her when they met on the S.S. Mauritania in 1929, he returning from a successful New York exhibition, she a teenager who had won a competition, the prize for which was a visit to Eretz Yisrael. If she looks like this at 96, what must she have looked like at 19? At the beginning he painted her and there is a famous painting of her on their Tel Aviv balcony with a "flapper" hairdo. "He didn't paint me any more after that," recalls Esther. "He painted camels, donkeys and flowers," she adds with a mischievous grin. When asked for the secret of her looks, she grins again. "Powder and paint my dear, powder and paint." They built the house in 1966 when Caesarea was mainly sand dunes. "A friend said that Reuven should get out more into the fresh air and we heard the Baron [Rothschild] was dividing land in Caesarea. We were very friendly with the Ebners (Lola Beer, the fashion designer) and used to be neighbors in Tel Aviv and we decided to buy a piece of land together." The plot they chose actually belonged to Nahum Goldmann. "Reuven went to Switzerland to negotiate conditions," says Esther. "If you bought, you had to build." The first thing they wanted in their home was a window seat where Reuven would be able to lie and look out at the sea. "When Reuven was a student at Bezalel, he was never able to get a seat where he could view the Old City, so in his home he wanted to be able to lie down and have an uninterrupted view of the sea. We measured him and built that seat according to his height. Lie down there, you'll understand." The focal point of the room is the trunk of an olive tree which acts as a supporting column. "My husband said, 'If Henry Moore can make a sculpture out of a hole, I'll make a pillar out of the stump of an olive tree,'" recalls Esther. "We looked all over but we couldn't find a real tree, so he made it. It is a support, sure, but not the only support." Over the fireplace hangs a depiction of Jacob wrestling with the angel. "The subject intrigued him and he did it several times. I think he felt that it exists in every human being, this inner wrestling with something but we don't know what," says Esther. A grand piano on the other side of the room also begs to be asked about. "When my daughter started playing, he decided to ask our good friend Arthur Rubinstein to help him choose. They met in London, and Rubinstein picked out that one. They had it shipped from Hamburg. He loved Reuven's paintings and my husband loved his music." Next to the staircase which leads up to the studio a huge colorful flower arrangement is placed and it is done whenever Esther comes to the house at weekends and recalls some of Reuven's flower paintings. During the week she lives in a Tel Aviv apartment acquired after the Rubins gave up their large house on Rehov Bialik, now the Rubin Museum. "He chose the apartment but never lived to reside in it," she says with regret. The studio where the great man did some of his finest work is a gallery which looks over and runs the length of the living room. Now bereft of paints and palettes, it contains some of his paintings, including a self-portrait. From the top of the stairs he could look down and perhaps see Esther sitting and reading the paper as she does today, but now in a wheelchair. Esther proudly shows me some of the art works distributed around the house. She is particularly fond of a sculpture of two peasants, a man and a woman, eating their mamaliga. "When Reuven was sent by Ben-Gurion to be Israel's first ambassador to Romania in 1948, I went shopping in Bucharest to try and find a piece of furniture on which I could display Israeli things and bring some Israeli character to the embassy," recalls Esther. "I went into an antique shop and the secretary who was with me went pale when she saw this statue. She remembered when Reuven made it 25 years before. I got it cheap and brought it home. When he saw it he began to shiver and asked me where I got it. It has even more meaning for me now." Another interesting piece is a sculpture made from pieces of metal with nails stuck in them. Esther tells the story with enthusiasm. "The only person to figure out what that is was Yitzhak Rabin. He recognized it as a piece of a Russian airplane. I'd picked it up in the Negev after it had been shot down by us. Which war - I don't remember, I'll ask my son." On the underside is a photo of the young Esther, holding the piece of airplane in the desert. Outside in the garden, she shows me the tree which Reuven had planted as a sapling. He instructed the gardener to arrange the pliable branches to grow in the shape of the letter shin to symbolize shalom. And sure enough, today the letter shin is clearly visible. "It's not a fancy house," says Esther. "You won't find any golden faucets here. But it contains a great deal of love." Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail: