December 10, 2018

Days of wine and roses with Rothschild

Spend some time in Zichron Ya’akov, an Israeli town 22 miles south of Haifa, and you’re bound to cross paths with Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. Not the real baron, who died in France in 1934, but his spirit, which is everywhere: in buildings, parks and streets. The baron’s bearded, larger-than-life likeness even appears on an old water tower near the town center. 

Most notably, Rothschild’s life and work live on in Zichron’s wineries. 

At Carmel, Israel’s largest winery, and at Tishbi, a boutique winery so rustic-chic it would be at home in Sonoma Valley, tour guides point out that Rothschild — who preferred anonymity and was referred to, with a sly wink, as HaNadiv HaYadua, “The Well-Known Benefactor” — founded and funded, among other things, the country’s wine industry in the late 19th century. 

Even the town’s name is a legacy of Rothschild: He chose to call it Zichron Ya’akov (“In Jacob’s Memory”) in honor of his father, James, whose Hebrew name was Jacob.

Located on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean, much of Zichron now looks like a well-heeled American suburb; many of its 20,000 inhabitants work in high-tech businesses within commuting distance. Residents walk dogs on landscaped paths, stylish neighborhoods boast markets selling foodie products, and there’s a network of dirt trails, for hiking and bicycling, with views of the sea. 

Water tower bears a painting of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

Zichron has spruced up old cobblestone streets and historic buildings, gentrifying a downtown dotted with restaurants serving sushi, lattes or creme brulees. For Israelis on a day visit, it’s like going to chutz la’aretz — abroad — for a few hours.

But because of Zichron’s connection to The Well-Known Benefactor, and the town’s crucial role in the story of Israeli immigration and wine production, it’s best to start with a visit to the First Aliyah Museum. In a handsome, historic building that once housed the offices of Rothschild’s representatives, Avital Efrat, museum director, said that the baron was considered the black sheep of the family when he was young. 

“Edmond was the grandson of the founder of the Rothschild fortune,” Efrat said, “but at university, he chose to study philosophy and art history rather than banking.” 

It wasn’t until the 1880s, she said — when Rothschild was in his late 30s — that he found his life’s purpose: He saw the human toll that pogroms inflicted and set about using his vast wealth to get Jews out of Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. 

“The baron wanted to show that poor Jews, with financial support and guidance, could become self-sufficient,” Efrat said. “So he sent administrators here, when this area was still in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Rothschild bankrolled the enterprise that turned the first wave of Jewish immigrants, the first aliyah, into farmers, and he sent experts to advise them. 

“It was hard at first for the pioneers of the first aliyah. There were struggles with the baron’s representatives, who were autocratic and wanted full control of land and crops. Besides, most of these Jews were new to farming and had to deal with the gap between their hopes and the harsh reality they found here. … 

“In the early years, they tried to grow many different crops, which often didn’t work out. … Rothschild’s representatives realized that Mediterranean terrain and climate lend themselves best to growing grapes.”

At Carmel Winery, tour director and wine and culture manager Valerie Hecht said Rothschild “was sure there would be a market for wine produced here. He figured that Jews anywhere in the world would be willing to buy a bottle of wine from the Holy Land.” 

The initial obstacle to wine production was that the land was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. 

“The Ottomans were Muslim, so wine was forbidden,” Hecht said. “This area had produced wine for thousands of years, but after Islam took control here in the seventh century, wine production, for the most part, stopped. So, for more than 1,000 years, the technology for making wine in Eretz Yisra’el was lost. The baron’s representatives went to Istanbul and made a deal with Ottoman rulers, who stipulated that all the wine made here would be exported.” 

The baron was willing to pay for everything but wanted all transactions carefully recorded. Hecht displayed a yellowed accounting ledger, well over 100 years old. One notation, in French, records the amount paid to an Ottoman potentate for “baquechiche” — baksheesh. The baron’s men were so thorough they even recorded bribes.

Hecht acknowledged that in the past, Israeli wines might not have been considered first rate.

“Over the years, our wines have gotten much better,” she said, “partly because the Israeli public has become pickier about wine, and partly because wine is no longer used merely for sacramental purposes but for enjoyment as well. That’s made a tremendous difference, along with the introduction of new materials like stainless steel vats and new technology like temperature control. We’ve evolved a lot since 1892.”

Wine is also produced at several boutique wineries in Zichron. 

At Tishbi Winery, a guide recounted that Michael and Malka Chamiletzki came from Lithuania in 1882 and settled in the area of Zichron, where they started growing grapes. In the 1920s, they hosted Israeli poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, who suggested they change their name to something “less Diaspora.” He proposed Tishbi and they agreed. 

For nearly 100 years, the family grew wine grapes for Carmel Winery. Then, in 1985, the Tishbi family started its own winery. Like wineries everywhere, Tishbi has a tasting area and sells its wine and brandy at the winery. If you prefer, you can bring an empty bottle and fill it up yourself at a stylish shop where they also sell gourmet cheeses and desserts. In addition, Tishbi has a restaurant with outdoor seating shaded by grapevines.

One high point of a Zichron visit is Ramat HaNadiv (Benefactor’s Hill), a beautiful — and free — public garden. This meticulously tended, extensive and ecologically conscious wonderland of grass, trees and flowers is a living memorial to Rothschild.

In 1954, soon after the garden opened, an Israeli navy frigate bearing the remains of the baron and his wife, Adelheid, left France and arrived in Israel, greeted by sirens and a 19-gun salute. David Ben-Gurion led the cortege to the couple’s final resting place in Ramat HaNadiv.

During a state funeral, in which the caskets were placed in a below-ground mausoleum, Ben-Gurion explained that the baron created and supported more than 40 agricultural colonies that became towns and cities. 

“I doubt,” Ben-Gurion said, “if one can find in the entire history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora — a period of almost 2,000 years — any person who equals or can compare with … that of Edmond de Rothschild.”

The theme of Ben-Gurion’s homage was that all Israelis, wherever they live, will forever hold Rothschild close to their hearts. That may be so, but when you’re in the Eden-like gardens of Ramat HaNadiv, you can’t help but feel that Zichron Ya’akov was the place closest to The Well-Known Benefactor’s heart: a town he created, nurtured and named after his own father.