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.