At 89 years old, Rina Mevorach still cooks every day, for herself, her children, grandchildren, numerous nieces, nephews and cousins as well as neighbours. She’s almost running a professional kitchen!
Rina was born to a Jewish family in Libya, and her story is the little known one of what happened to Jews in North Africa when the German army reached them during World War Two. Her story is also about the kindness of a neighbour who helped her family to survive in those dark days. Above all it is a love story.
Rina fell in love, in a whirlwind wartime romance, with a soldier who marched into Tripoli as part of the British army in 1943, after the Brits had chased the Germans out of Libya. The desert tank battles at El Alamein, and the defeat of the German General Erwin Rommel, have a very personal dimension for Rina.
The British soldier was called Moise Mevorach, not a very British name, because he was actually from Jerusalem. Within three months of their first meeting, he proposed to Rina, and she accepted. She was still sixteen.
“What did my mother say? What could she say? She’d been married at fifteen!” Rina exclaims.
Her grand-daughter Enelle, who has come over to cook with Rina, is sitting in the kitchen of her Jerusalem apartment listening to this family story. She is fifteen years old. But Rina is horrified at any suggestion that Enelle would get married so young.
“No! God forbid! Are you crazy? Enelle mustn't do that! She has to study. These are different times.”
Rina has lived in Jerusalem for almost seven decades, always cooking the dishes from home in Libya for her family.
For years, she lived above Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yehuda market, and shopped there of course. In fact, she’s never stopped shopping there! Since she moved house, she goes back by train every week. Like other locals, she brings a trolley which is full to the brim by the time she’s ready to go home.
A series of covered stalls located in the centre of town, Mahane Yehuda market is noisy, sprawling and colourful. It’s an exciting shopping venue where you can buy fruit, vegetables, nuts, cheeses, meat, fish breads and spices; clothes and jewellery stores are now popping up, as well as funky restaurants and bars. But the stall holders still set up competing calls to attract the grocery shoppers.
“Grapes, grapes, grapes!” or “5 shekels, 5 shekels, 5 shekels!” they yell over and over, like a chant, or a prayer, as customers walk between beautifully laid out rows of produce.
Rina first started shopping in this market in 1946.
“That’s almost 70 years ago!” Rina exclaims, surprising herself.
“I go back to the same stalls, and at some of them the grandfather ran it when I first came, and then the father, and now it’s the grandson.”
She wheels her trolley dexterously around the narrow sandstone paths. Every uneven surface is familiar, and Rina moves fast, despite her age, disappearing around corners like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
At the baker’s, Rina recalls how when she first came to Israel the apartments had no ovens, or even stoves. They had only small primus cook tops, like camping stoves. In order to cook a main meal for the Sabbath, Jerusalem housewives continued the old Jewish tradition of taking their pots to the bakery on a Friday night, and leaving them to cook overnight in the baker's oven.
Each pot contained a meat, bean and lentil stew, called cholent in Europe and hamin in Israel, which was left overnight, to cook slowly. (This dish comes in endless variations. No two recipes are quite alike.)
This was how poor Jewish housewives had cooked their Sabbath meal across Europe, Russia and Central Asia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It continued in Jerusalem well into the 1960’s.
On Saturday mornings, Rina sent the children to the baker collect their Sabbath meal. In the winters, which are cold in Jerusalem, the children squabbled about who would go.
Rina didn't have the chance to complete much schooling. As with many migrants, her children have been able to study more than she did. Her son has fulfilled a Jewish mother’s dreams and become a doctor; in fact, a Professor of Medicine at one of the country’s leading hospitals. Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.
As she walks around the market, Rina points out not only the stall holders she knows, but also those whom her son the doctor has treated.
“This man owes his life to my son,” she says proudly, outside a butcher’s stall selling mainly poultry. “He promised that, if he recovered, I would never have to pay for home delivery again. And that’s how it’s been ever since.”
Rina shows no sign of wishing to end her weekly shopping trips.
“No. Why should I? And if the day comes that I can’t do it any more, then I will send someone to do the shopping here for me. There’s nowhere as good as this.”
Rina chooses coffee, which they grind fresh for her here. She likes it with cardamom, in the Arab fashion, the way they drank it back home in Libya. When her trolley is packed to the brim, she catches the train home.
Rina was the third of six children of the Ben Chaim family, born in Libya in 1925. Her parents Rebecca and Victor had 5 girls in a row before their long-awaited son arrived. After that, there were no more babies.
The family lived in the Libyan capital Tripoli, then a beguiling sea-side town, on the edge of the desert.
The city had wide streets and caramel coloured stone buildings, including grand hotels, surrounded by palm trees, where people drank cappuccino from Italian coffee machines.
In the 1930’s, almost one quarter of Tripoli’s population were Jews. Libya was then an Italian colony, and the Jews lived there peaceably even after Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini took power in Italy.
In 1937, the international Grand Prix was held in Tripoli, on a brand new track carved through the desert, to showcase Italian and German racing skills. Mussolini’s ally, Adolf Hitler, insisted that the German racing cars must win.
Rina’s father was a leather worker, making bags and shoes by hand, while her mother looked after the home. They lived in a Jewish area, and spoke Italian as well as Arabic. They had an apartment in a large house, with a common courtyard where all the families met.
Their apartment had one large main room, and two bedrooms. Rina’s parents slept in one room, all the children in the other on mattresses on the floor.
"Our family was poor, but we never went hungry," says Rina.
Her mother baked bread every day, and would always cook a pot of vegetables and grains, which sometimes included meat or fish as well.
Occasionally, they would cook out in the courtyard, over an open fire, for example if they were roasting and grinding coffee, a job Rina used to help her mother with.
“My aunt was wealthier, they could afford to cook a number of fresh dishes every day and she would say to me, 'Ya habibti, my beloved girl, come to my house and watch me cook, in case you get married one day soon.' "
And that’s how Rina learned to cook.
RECIPE FOR MAFRUM
One of the family favourites still today, in Israel, is Mafrum, a dish of vegetables stuffed with meat, first fried to seal the parcels, and then stewed in tomato sauce. There are different versions of this dish on Jewish tables around the Mediterranean - in Morroco, Tunisia and even Greece (where the meat and vegetables are stewed in a lemon sauce). Rina makes her mafroum with potato and eggplant, stuffed with minced lamb or beef, or a mixture of the two. You can use any minced meat you like, or you can make a vegetarian version too.
World War II
Rina was 13 when the war began, and 14 when the German army reached Tripoli in 1940. The Italian policy of quietly ignoring the Jews they ruled over in Libya was about to change.
The new German leaders ordered the Jews to report to Tripoli’s main train station. They were not told why.
It would turn out to be for transport to Jado, a labour camp outside the city. Jado was not a death camp,like Auschwitz. The Nazis didn’t have that infrastructure in Africa. But it was a prison where Jews were starved, ill-treated and held in appalling conditions.
A friend and protector
A family friend advised Rina’s parents not to go to the train station. Michel Nitzola was an Italian Christian who was concerned about his Jewish neighbours.
“But we have to go, or the police will punish us,” Rina’s father said.
“Better the police than the Germans,” replied Nitzola, in an attempt to persuade him to disobey the order.
In the end, Rina's parents took this advice and stayed put. The family spent the war in Tripoli, surviving by speaking to each other in Italian whenever they saw German soldiers.
“Nitzola saved our lives – and that was not the only time!” says Rina. “He was a good man, a very good man. I still think about him every day, even though he passed away a few years ago now. I never forget his kindness to us.”
Rina’s aunt and uncle were not so lucky.
They obeyed the German order, went to the train station and were interred at the Jado camp with the rest of the Jews of Tripoli. They survived until they were freed by British troops in late 1942. They returned home ill and emaciated. Rina’s aunt died soon afterwards.
Rina leaves school
Not long after the German army arrived in Libya, Rina’s father Victor fell ill, adding to the pressure on the family. Rina had to leave school, and go out to work. Victor didn't feel strong enough to stay in the capital, which was being bombed in fierce battles between the British and the Germans, desperately fighting for control of North Africa. The two armies were evenly matched. The town of Benghazi, farther down the coast, changed hands 5 times. The tank battles in the desert there became legendary.
Victor moved his family from Tripoli to Zawiye, a town further away from the fighting. But conditions were tough and the family begged to go home. When they returned to Tripoli a few months later, they found a hole in the ground where their house had been. It had been completely destroyed in a bombing raid.
“There was nothing left of the entire building. Not even a photograph! You can imagine what would have happened to us if we’d stayed,” says Rina.
At the end of 1942, the British forced the fabled German General Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, to retreat. Twelve days of fierce fighting in the Libyan desert followed. This was the Battle of El Alamein and it was the start of the British victory in Africa.
In January, 1943 when Tripoli fell to the British, Libyan civilians turned out to greet the incoming British troops as they marched up the esplanade into the capital. Rina, now a pretty 16 year old, was among them.
“Don’t be so happy!” said an Italian man who spotted her. “What happens if the Germans come back? They'll make trouble for you.”
Rina ignored this warning. She was young and felt free, and yes, happy as well. The sour stranger was right.
She and her friends went on their way, laughing and waving. It was winter, but the Mediterranean sea shone a bright joyful blue, as if to welcome the victorious British troops and tanks.
BRITISH troops free Tripoli
This back and white newsreels show Monty - the British General Bernard Montgomery - marching into Tripoli, at the head of the victorious Eighth Army, completing the "greatest desert march in history!" Another newsreel shows that it was New Zealand troops who were the first in, headed by a Maori battalion. Their mascot, a small white fluffy dog, was sitting on top of the truck with the soldiers.
A British marching band followed, playing bagpipes, for the formal ceremony. They were greeted by "a motley collection of Tripoli's mixed population", in the words of British Pathe (see newsreel on the right) which also notes the "undisguised relief showed by some of the 25,000 Jews left there by the Italians."
The Libyans cheered when the British troops hoisted the Union Jack over the Red Castle fortress at the seafront. The supplies the German troops had burnt before they retreated were still smouldering along the shore nearby.
In amongst all these celebrations, one British soldier caught Rina’s eye. He was handsome, and smiled at her, before getting lost in the crowd.
Later in the week she went to an office in town, to see about the possibility of finding work. Who should be there but the good-looking soldier.
Mevorach means "blessed" in Hebrew and Rina thought that was an auspicious sign! Moise Mevorach told her he was from the Jewish Brigade, Jewish soldiers from Palestine who joined the British army to fight the Nazis. He spoke 7 languages, and was working as an army interpreter. As well as the wining smile she’d already noticed, he had a tattoo on his forearm.
“I didn't think he was Jewish, because of that tattoo. Jews don’t have tattoos, it's forbidden. But he promised me that he was, that he'd only had it done in case he was captured by German soldiers,” Rina says.
Moise was 23, seven years older than Rina. He asked if he could come to see her at home. She said yes. He promised to get her a certificate from a rabbi in Jerusalem to prove that he was Jewish, despite the tattoo. By this stage, Rina says she was so in love she didn't care.
"I'd have married him even if he wasn't Jewish," Rita laughs. “But we were never alone together. My little sister Lydia followed us everywhere, like a shadow.”
Three months later, Moise proposed. Sixteen year old Rina accepted.
Then Moise asked Rina’s father Victor for her hand in marriage.
Victor Ben Chaim was only forty years old, but he was by now very sick. He was happy to see Rina settled, but said that he could only give permission in principle because Rina couldn't marry before her older sisters.
“It must go in age order. That’s our custom,” he explained to her disappointed suitor.
Their problem was Rina’s eldest sister, Laura. She was unlikely to marry any time soon, although she was beautiful and popular, because she had been engaged to a man she loved desperately, who had died of typhus.
“She wasn't going to marry anyone else quickly,” Rina says. “In fact, she said she was never going to marry anyone else at all! Well, she did in the end, but only five years later. I couldn't wait five years!”
This developed into source of conflict between the two sisters. Rina asked how long Laura was going to hold her back from getting married, but all that Laura said was, “I’m not holding you prisoner anywhere. Go get married if you wish!”
Two weeks later, Rina was visiting Moise at his army base when they received a message. Her father’s illness had taken a turn for the worse. By the time she reached the hospital, he was no longer alive.
At the same time, the British army was planning to move Moise and his battalion out of Libya.
Rina felt the ground shifting under her feet.
“I knew we had to get married as soon as possible.”
And two months later they did.
“I had a white dress, for the wedding, and a rose-coloured dress I wore afterwards. Our Italian friend Nitzola was at the wedding of course,” says Rina. “Before he died my father said to Nitzola, ‘Please look after these girls, they will have no protector.’ So Nitzola looked out for us, and he even taught me to read and write. You see, I only had the basics. I hadn't done much schooling.”
Soon after the wedding, Rina fell pregnant. When she gave birth to her first baby, a girl, they called her Rachel, after Moise’s mother. Then Moise's unit was transferred out of Libya.
Rina was a 17 year old with a new baby. The husband she had only known for a few months was gone.
But Rina says she never worried about him coming back.
“It was a big love. I knew he loved me very deeply. And I loved him too, you know. I was crazy about him. So I didn't worry.”
Just as well, because Moise and Rina would be apart for more than two years.
Attacks on Jews in Tripoli
The end of the War brought another dangerous phase began for Libya’s Jews. From 1945, gangs of local youths roamed the streets of Tripoli, and started attacking Jewish homes.
The British soldiers, the nominal power in the land, did not intervene.
The spate of attacks lasted for weeks. Synagogues and Jewish businesses were burnt. One hundred and forty people were killed, and many more were injured. At the end, 4,000 Jews were left homeless.
“Our wonderful Nitzola stepped in to help us. He set up 8 tents in the garden of his villa, and took in seventeen Jewish girls and we lived there, out of sight of the militias.”
When the rioting ended, all seventeen girls, including Rina and her new baby, were alive.
“You see, Nitzola saved us – twice!” Rina exclaims.
STUFFED VINE LEAVES RECIPE
Rita tells this story to Enelle, as they prepare stuffed vine leaves in Rina's kitchen.
It's another of the Libyan dishes she is known for, and the rolling up of the vine leaves. which is an art in itself, proves a companionable task for telling family stories. Rita supervises with an eagle eye, correcting mistakes, as Enelle concentrates and listens.
You learn a lot more than the recipe when you cook with your grandmother.
Rina is blunt about why Enelle must learn how to cook these Libyan dishes.
“I told her, you have to learn how to make these recipes, because one day I won’t be here any more, and you have to make them for your father.”
Rina doesn’t have a cook book, and reading is not easy for her. Mostly she cooks from memory.
“I have to put my glasses on to check the recipes. I can’t be bothered with that. Instead, I cook from memory, and by taste. I’m told that’s also good for fighting memory loss,” Rina laughs. “I never forget these recipes!”
In 1946, Rina's new husband Moise Mevorach was demobilised from the British army. After he returned to Jerusalem, he sent for Rina to join him. Rina left Libya for the first time, travelling by sea with her toddler to Egypt. Moise met them at Port Said.
Together they travelled overland to what was then British controlled Palestine.
Rina was 20 years old. mother of a 3 year old, when she reached her new home in Jerusalem.
“It wasn't easy. Morris’s mother had diabetes and was beginning to go blind. I had to look after his 4 younger brothers, as well as my daughter. I did everything, all the cooking, cleaning, and washing. But you do what you have to do.”
Perhaps that’s why Rina Mevorach devotes time and effort to producing tasty meals which require a number of steps – rolling, stuffing, frying and then stewing. She is used to hard work.
“Mafrum is work” she says of the stuffed aubergines and potatoes she prepares for her grandchildren.
“If you want to eat, you have to work.”