For years, Ronna Mink carried around a copy of a photo reel of unfamiliar faces on her iPhone.
When her 90-year-old Uncle Sy gifted her his collection of family albums nearly a decade ago, she digitized the photos on her phone, one of which was a faded black-and-white snapshot from a 1949 family visit to Tel Aviv.
In that picture, Mink’s paternal great-grandmother, Ettel Schaffran, stands alongside her adult children and grandson on a curved balcony of a building she owned, with an Israeli flag proudly hung to mark Israel’s recent declaration of independence.
The images are always with Mink, and as she prepared to visit Tel Aviv last February to see some decidedly familiar faces – those of her stepson (my husband), myself and our two kids – she was reminded to pull up that snapshot.
Like the people in the photo, she presumed the building her great-grandparents bought in the 1930s was long gone.
“I didn’t think that the building would even be standing, so it didn’t occur to me to go look,” Mink later told me. “I just assumed that it was so long ago, and things get demolished and rebuilt.”
But by day five of her week-long trip, with hours spent eyeing similar wrought iron balconies around Tel Aviv, Mink was curious about the Zionist vacation home Uncle Sy had told her about when he passed down the albums. That evening, she called him in Miami to ask for the address — just for fun.
“Nachmani 23,” Seymour (Sy) Hecker said on the other end of the line, and as Ronna repeated it out loud to a living room full of curious eavesdroppers, everyone immediately recognized the address.
My husband and I have admired that three-story Italianate apartment building facing King Albert Square for years, even before it was meticulously restored and opened as one of Tel Aviv’s premier boutique luxury hotels – The Norman – in 2014.
The Norman made headlines when it opened, both for its unprecedented poshness and the eight-year architectural restoration process it commissioned for the two neighboring historic buildings – Nachmani 23 and 25 – that now comprise the hotel. Several articles at the time referred to Nachmani 23 as ‘Beit Schaffran’ (Schaffran House), but omitted any details about its namesakes, even though they were the longest-standing landlords of the nearly century-old building, having owned it from 1937 until 1979.
Little is known in Israel about the Schaffrans, who were foreign owners and kept to themselves. As a result, much of the Schaffran family’s connection to Nachmani 23 is missing from local history.
Prohibition-era dollars buy a Tel Aviv winter home
If alcohol hadn’t been outlawed in the United States during the 1920s, the Schaffrans might not have been able to afford ship fare from New York to Tel Aviv in 1937 – let alone buy an entire building as a souvenir.
“My grandfather had a produce store in Buffalo, and he made a substantial amount of money,” says Donny Hecker about his grandfather, Sam Schaffran. “He was in something, let’s call it ‘not kosher.’ He was buying carloads of sugar, which was a necessary item for the bootleggers to make liquor. He was a very savvy guy, as many Jewish men were of the day.”
So when a good business opportunity arose during their trip, Sam and Ettel knew to seize it. Someone told the couple about a building for sale in a prime Tel Aviv location, between tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard and commercial Allenby Street, within a five-minute walk of the city’s Great Synagogue (they were Orthodox). The Schaffrans had their oldest daughter, Molly, wire them the money from Buffalo; their plan was to use the first-floor corner apartment as a vacation home to escape frigid upstate New York winters, and rent out the other apartments.
They allegedly paid $25,000 for the whole building. Today the Corner Suite at The Norman – the space where the Schaffran’s apartment once stood – goes for $1,600 a night (and it’s not the priciest suite in the hotel).
A live-in caretaker, Shimon Rubinstein, looked after the building and collected rents.
“Our contact with the landlords, as far as I can remember, was always through Shimon,” recalled Ami Ginigar, whose family rented the corner apartment directly above the Schaffrans from the 1940s onwards, and is one of the last surviving tenants of Nachmani 23.
Sam Schaffran was surely savvy; the building was a solid purchase. According to research conducted by Yoav Messer, the architect whose firm restored Nachmani 23, it was designed by architect Moshe Cherner in 1925. (Cherner’s previous project was an elegant hotel on Bialik Street, quickly converted into Tel Aviv’s first City Hall, and now the Beit Ha’ir Museum.) Around 900 residential buildings were constructed in a quickly growing Tel Aviv that year alone, at the peak of the fourth Aliyah wave.
When the Schaffrans took ownership, they made some improvements, adding bathrooms, changing the flooring and commissioning two murals for the ground floor entrance. “It was very nice,” Seymour Hecker recalls. “When you went into the main staircase, there was a beautiful picture of Jerusalem that my grandfather had painted on the wall.”
One mural was of the Western Wall and the other was of Rachel’s Tomb – two common mural subjects in 1920s Tel Aviv. Today, the now-restored murals at Nachmani 23 are the last surviving examples of these themes.
Jerusalem was especially important to Ettel Schaffran, who was very religious.
“She was beyond observant,” Donny Hecker said. “She carried her own dishes and her own silverware, even at my mother’s home, which was strictly kosher. My mother had three kitchens in her house: milk, meat, and Passover. So that gives you an idea how strict they were.” (One can only imagine what Ettel Schaffran would think of the calamari and cheeseburgers now served at The Norman’s in-house restaurant.)
Beyond eating strictly kosher, she seems to have been just generally strict.
“I’ve heard so much about her and nothing sounds very warm, I must tell you,” Mink said. Cousins have told her that they were always afraid of Ettel Schaffran.
The kids who lived at Nachmani 23 learned to stay away from her, too.
“When we were playing in the courtyard and making noise, she’d threaten us that a hole would open and we’d fall in,” said Ginigar, 60 years later, who recalled horsing around with neighborhood kids in the orchard behind the L-shaped building. “And we ran away – we were afraid of her, and afraid of what our parents would say if they knew we had bothered her.”
Ettel Schaffran’s severity might have been part of her personality. Or maybe she was hardened by life. She lost her first husband, Sam, who was in his mid-50s, when the two of them were wintering alone in Tel Aviv.
“My grandfather was walking down Herzl Street [in 1939] to get tickets to come back to America because war was breaking out,” Seymour Hecker said. “He was walking down to the place to get the tickets, and he had a stroke. He lived a couple of months, and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.” She left Tel Aviv a widow, and didn’t return for a decade.
In fact, her first visit back was captured in that photo Ronna has on her iPhone. Looking down from the balcony, third from the right, Ettel Schaffran is surrounded by her children and one grandchild (Sy). Standing beside her is Rabbi Abraham Bender, her second husband.
A few years later Ettel Schaffran and Rabbi Bender moved permanently to Nachmani 23, leaving her Buffalonian family behind in favor of life in the Holy Land.
“Once the kids were all grown, the story I always heard was that’s when she was comfortable to leave everyone and move to Israel for her remaining days,” said Donny Hecker.
Ettel Schaffran lived into her 80s and died around 1975. Her kids sold the building a few years later.
You can go to your (great-grandmother’s) home again
Mink was the first Schaffran descendant to enter Nachmani 23 since its sale in 1979. After Uncle Sy revealed the building’s address over the phone, we excitedly walked to The Norman early the next morning, showing the iPhone photo to the receptionist like a vintage backstage pass of sorts.
A manager kindly ushered us into the Corner Suite, even suggesting where to position the camera in King Albert Square in order to recreate the composition of the 1949 photo. Mink stood in her great-grandmother’s literal footsteps, looking out from the same balcony onto a very different Tel Aviv.
“It was something that I never ever would have imagined,” said Mink, still emotional at the memory of reconnecting with her fabled ancestor. “It was unbelievable to me that we would be standing in that spot, I never dreamed that something like that was even possible.”
In the meantime, Ettel Schaffran has left another legacy on the other side of the Atlantic. Inspired by her experience, Mink created a Facebook group where descendants of Ettel and Sam Schaffran’s nine kids, scattered across North America, can meet for the first time under a single virtual roof.
“I’ve reached out to people I never knew existed, and they have been so excited,” said Mink. “I feel that through that picture a whole world has developed of people I didn’t know, and we all have a common history. And I would not have known that. You know that there are people, but until you actually reach out and speak to them – it becomes so much more real. It’s been really exciting.”
Will there be a family reunion next year at The Norman? The Norman has a grander ring to it than The Ettel, that’s for sure.
Still, in this writer’s admittedly biased opinion, the stern balabusta, who left her kids behind to make this faraway city her home, deserves some kind of shout-out in the building’s lore. Maybe with a namesake cocktail at the hotel’s ever-popular Library Bar, with sour and bitter notes to match her reputed personality. Cheers to you, Ettel.