My Father’s House

Showcase of a Zionist dream

By Mikael Levin|July 22, 2019 12:00 AM


In 1947 my father produced a feature film [1] titled My Father’s House. Since there is no such house in the movie, one can wonder about the choice of that title. It is the story of a boy, a survivor of the concentration camps, who comes to Palestine to look for his family. The boy doesn’t find his family but the movie ends with his uncovering an ancient cornerstone inscribed with his family name, Halevi. The title is thus espousing the Zionist view of the land of Israel as the land of our forefathers.

In giving his movie that title, I don’t think my father was making any particular reference to his own father’s house in Chicago. From what I know, they lived in rental flats during his childhood, and though his father, a tailor, eventually saved enough to buy a small apartment building, he lost it in the Depression.

But for me, “my father’s house” has a very definite connotation. It is the house my father designed and built in Israel in the early 1960s, the showcase of his Zionist dream.

I have a handful of slides taken of the house when it was brand new. Most of the photographs are by the Israeli photojournalist David Rubinger.

My father, the author Meyer Levin, in his study. He designed his desk in the form of a wave. The wave motif is often found in mosaics excavated in Israel and throughout the Mediterranean, and he returned to it throughout the house.
View of the house facing the sea. The pool is in the foreground. The water cascaded down along a ‘natural’ path of stones and ancient marble slabs, columns, and capitals that he’d pilfered from Roman ruins. The pool itself was made from sandstone rocks he’d had hauled from the beach. But because they were porous, the pool never held its water.
My parents pose in the fireplace alcove. As with much of the house, it was decorated with an Oriental theme. The brass bas-relief over the fireplace, ‘Jacob’s Dream,’ was by my grandfather, the artist Marek Szwarc. Though he secretly converted to Christianity, he always returned to Jewish themes in his work.
The living room, with my parents, my brother, and myself taking center stage. With its huge plate-glass windows overlooking the sea, its spare furnishings, and blue tile floor, my mother found the room to be cold, and, to my father’s exasperation, always kept the curtains at least partially drawn.
The entrance hall. Note the squares of decorative tile on the floor. When my father was building his house there were whole neighborhoods of old Palestinian homes being torn down in nearby Jaffa. My father would go around salvaging tiles that he then set in patterns throughout the home.
The entrance, with my grandfather’s sculpture Pax, in the foreground. The exterior stairs leading to my father’s upstairs office was inspired by houses he’d seen in Palestinian villages.
Although neither of my parents did much cooking, the wood cabinetry and deep red floor tiles made this the warmest room in the house. The repurposed Bedouin camel belts made for an effective screen between the kitchen and dining room.
A corner of the dining area. The marble placed as a step between the dining room and sunken living room was something that I remember as my find, spotted half buried on the beach near the archeological ruins of the Roman era port (and later Crusader castle) or Caesarea.
The house seen from the beach. Rather than go around to the entrance of the public beach, I would climb down the cliff. In the summer, when beach admission was charged, people would come through the adjoining empty lot to take my free route down the cliff. When the village posted a guard to prevent this, he was knifed by angry beachgoers.
Street-side view of the house. It’s my mother’s handwriting at the bottom but mine at the top so I probably took this picture.

To me, the way this picture shows the clean lines of the house set against the cloudless sky and protruding into the clear horizon, represents everything of those years on Galey Tchelet (Street of the Purple Waves), in Herzliya-on-the-Sea, the town named, of course, after Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

That simple clarity was not to last. As time passed my father grew disillusioned with the way things had turned out in Israel. The wars, the continuing occupation, the material and moral corruption, were not the way he’d imagined things.

After he died we sold the house. I visited once a few years later. The new owners had planted old, gnarled olive trees in the garden to anchor the property in an air of timelessness. The olive trees had no doubt been uprooted from Palestinian groves.

Recently the house was resold and the new owners tore it down, building in its place something more suitable to their needs. Like my father’s vision of Zionism, the house gave way to a new reality.

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