A Strange Death: A Sto­ry Orig­i­nat­ing in Espi­onage, Betray­al, and Vengeance in a Vil­lage in Old Palestine

Hil­lel Halkin
  • Review
By – June 15, 2012

Hil­lel Halkin’s chron­i­cle of the his­tor­i­cal intrigue of the Israeli city Zichron Yaakov evokes the world of pre-state Israel and the com­plex ten­sions that world was built upon. At the same time, Halkin’s sto­ry is full of sen­si­tive­ly wrought char­ac­ters— some quite famous, such as those of the Aaron­sohn fam­i­ly, oth­ers only remem­bered by fam­i­ly and friends — who rep­re­sent the range of men and women who formed the core of the ear­ly Israeli nation. 

This is a tale that will appeal most to those who han­ker for infor­ma­tion about the pol­i­tics, life and human dra­mas that shaped life in Pales­tine when the Turks and British were com­pet­ing for con­trol over this par­cel of land with its Arab inhab­i­tants and grow­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. Par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing is the anec­dote about Zichron Yaakov’s orig­i­nal patron, Baron Edmond de Roth­schild, who insist­ed the bur­geon­ing town be named in mem­o­ry of his father, Jacob. Halkin deft­ly reveals both the mer­its of the renowned benefactor’s largesse and the inani­ty of his efforts to micro­man­age Zichron’s development. 

In prin­ci­ple, A Strange Death is meant to illu­mi­nate the shady details of a spy ring based in Zichron that col­lab­o­rat­ed with the British to over­throw Palestine’s Turk­ish rulers. Indeed, a size­able por­tion of the book is devot­ed to this top­ic, known as the Nili Affair. But, Halkin in no way neglects the broad­er, and no less col­or­ful, his­to­ry of this wine pro­duc­ing cen­ter and traces a his­tor­i­cal jour­ney that is char­ac­ter­ized by high lev­el polit­i­cal con­flict and poignant every day life in an era that is quaint in its sim­plic­i­ty and heart-wrench­ing in its harshness. 


Shana Rosen­blatt Mauer is pur­su­ing doc­tor­al research in the field of Amer­i­can Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. She lec­tures at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, the Open Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem, and teach­es Eng­lish at Har­man High School.

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