The NILI and Zichron Yaacov

A Strange Death, by Hillel Halkin, 2005( Public Affairs , Perseus Book Group), also available as an E Book.

Hillel Halkin’s book is an historical drama/elegy to an evolving pioneering Jewish town in Israel from the first Aliya in 1880’s originally called Zamarin, and changed to Zichron Yaakov when Baron Rothchild took over the village becoming the “ruler” of Zichron in the 1890’s as the village essentially became bankrupt.

The drama, romance and spying of the Nili (which stands for Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker- the destiny of Israel does not lie) group of Palestinian Jews for the British against the Turks in the First World War is the centerpiece for the book as Halkin tries to reconstruct the reality filtered through the mythology of those times. The death of Zionist leader and role model Sarah Arohnson and their possible betrayal by some of their neighbors has created a drama and mystery that continues to this day.

His guides are the old timers who still haunted  Zichron in the 1970’s and the littered old abandoned houses of the pioneers that he liberally raids.

The anti- hero of the book has close Australian connections, as many descendants of Epsteins, Halperins and other Jews  in Australia had roots in Zichron and other pioneering towns of old Israel.  Yanko (Yaakov) Epstein –a horse riding shomer, member of the Gid’on group, most comfortable in the surrounding Beduin villages, is a cross between an Israeli Zelig, Baron Von Munchausen, Indiana Jones and avuncular yarn spinning historian, growing his museum in the center of Zichron.  I am particularly interested in how  my grandmother Devora Atlas (nee Epstein) never ever talked about these early times and yet experienced first hand all of the trying, traumatic but exciting and romantic times Halkin  recreates.  Maybe that is why she cried non -stop for the first three years after she arrived in Perth in the 1920’s.

For readers interested in the origins of the Zionist enterprise, this book is a must.

Ian

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