Reporter's notebook

Remembering Rabin in his father’s hometown

The prime minister’s former aides make a journey to Sydorovychi, the Ukrainian village where Nehemia Rabin was born and raised

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A delegation of Israelis and Ukranians commemorating the family of Yitzhak Rabin, in his father's hometown. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A delegation of Israelis and Ukranians commemorating the family of Yitzhak Rabin, in his father's hometown. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

SYDOROVYCHI, Ukraine — The village where Nehamia Rubitzov, Yitzhak Rabin’s father, was born and raised is a bare, gray landscape in early November, an Eastern European town of one-lane roads, tall oak and beech trees shedding their browning leaves and small, simple farmhouses, their chipped roof shingles and rusting window frames hinting at a population struggling to make ends meet.

More than one hundred years after Rubitzov left this depressed Ukrainian town, the story of Rabin and his family has a place, commemorated in the simple, white-shelved library of the local community center.

There, surrounded by shelves of books written in Cyrillic, sits a bronze relief sculpture of Nehamia Rabin and his two children, Yitzhak and Rachel, created by a local artist from a photograph of the family that hangs in the Rabin Museum in Tel Aviv.

On Wednesday morning, 20 years after the assassination of Rabin, his closest political advisers, former chief of staff Eitan Haber and aide Mully Dor, stood in the library and spoke about Rabin, their mentor and colleague.

The setting, so typically Ukrainian, marked the tremendous changes wrought by Nehamia Rubitzov in his journey toward Zionism. The small library was cold and damp on a Wednesday morning in November, and decked out in fake plants and traditional, flower-embroidered scarves. The bronze relief of the Rabins, depicting their serious, similar faces, sits above a shelf displaying coffee-table books about Israel.

It was Haber who officially announced Rabin’s death on that fateful night, forever becoming the voice of that fateful news.

Eitan Haber, Yitzhak Rabin's chief of staff, takes a piece of a traditional Ukranian bread at a ceremony in memory of the prime minister (Courtesy Dmitriy Galin)
Eitan Haber, Yitzhak Rabin’s chief of staff, takes a piece of a traditional Ukrainian bread held by Chaim Chesler at a ceremony in memory of the prime minister. (Courtesy Dmitry Galin)

Now, 20 years later, he and Dor are in Ukraine as participants in Limmud FSU, the Russian-speaking offshoot of the liberal Jewish thought conference that first started in the United Kingdom 30 years ago, and which is taking place in Lviv, Ukraine, this week. The commemoration took place on the first day of their visit.

“What words do I have?” said Haber, now 75. “I’m grateful for becoming Rabin’s aide when he first entered politics. I knew it would be the pinnacle of my working life.”

Haber, a journalist before becoming Rabin’s aide, returned to writing after the prime minister’s assassination. Dor, now an activist, spoke about working with Rabin since 1974, when the former army man made his first foray into political life.

“He was a very special, matter-of-fact person, who liked to focus on the facts and issues,” said Dor. “But he would become animated when he spoke about family. Not many people know that his mother and father were also leaders.”

Neither man offered any specifics about the journey made by Rabin’s father, in his journey from Ukraine to the United States and then to pre-state Palestine, where he arrived as part of the wave of Third Aliya immigrants. Rubitzov, who changed his name to Rabin while in the US, met his wife, Rosa Cohen, originally from Belarus, in Jerusalem.

The couple moved to Tel Aviv in 1923, where their two children were born. Nehemia Rabin worked for the Israel Electric Corporation and Rosa Rabin was an accountant and local activist who became a member of the Tel Aviv City Council.

Dor also spoke about the lesser-known social changes that Rabin made during his first term as prime minister, during the difficult years of the 1970s.

“He always said, ‘We serve the public, the public doesn’t serve us,'” said Dor.

The photo of Rachel, Nehemia and Yitzhak Rabin that inspired a bronze relief scupture in Ukraine (Courtesy Rabin Center)
The photo of Rachel, Nehemia and Yitzhak Rabin that inspired a bronze relief sculpture in Ukraine. (Courtesy Rabin Center)

And then Chaim Chesler, a garrulous former Jewish Agency official who spent many years organizing Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, stepped forward with a collection of his own Rabin memories. It was Chesler who commissioned the Rabin family sculpture and dedicated it in Rabin’s father’s hometown three years ago, with Yuval Rabin, the prime minister’s son.

Chesler recounted meeting Rabin in Moscow in 1970s when he became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Russia in an official capacity.

“He flew in on an Israeli Air Force plane, or maybe it was El Al,” said Chesler.

“It was an Air Force jet,” interjected Haber.

Rabin arrived to a red carpet ceremony that included a Russian band playing the Israeli anthem, “Hatikvah.” The first event of the visit took place at a Moscow synagogue, said Chesler.

“There was a connection between Rabin and the FSU,” he said. “Rabin told me that meeting Russian immigrants was a highlight of his premiership. The first time I saw Rabin tear up was when we went to St. Petersburg to a Jewish school and little girls danced the hora with him. This tough guy just melted.”

Chaim Chesler, who coordinated the Rabin memorial in Ukraine, and brought together some of Rabin's coterie for the 20th memorial ceremony (Courtesy Dmitry Galin)
Chaim Chesler, who coordinated the Rabin memorial in Ukraine and brought together some of Rabin’s coterie for the 20th memorial ceremony, with Mark Taliansky and Genady Polishchouk to his right. (Courtesy Dmitry Galin)

Mark Taliansky, the executive director of the Babi Yar Foundation Memorial and the only person present with a yarmulke on his head, spoke briefly about the Jewish presence in Ukraine, referring to the other famous Jewish Ukrainians — Golda Meir, Zeev Jabotinsky, Shalom Aleichem — as well as to the ability of Jewish Ukrainians to live freely as Jews, and how grateful they are for that.

Am Yisrael chai and Am Ukraine chai,” he said.

The ceremony ended with the mourner’s prayer recited by Dr. Yoel Rappel, the Israeli editor of Elie Wiesel’s works and an expert on Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The guests and locals made their way out of the library, past the center’s modest auditorium and lone ping-pong table to the outside memorial and plaque remembering Rabin’s grandfather, Menachem Rubitzov.

A group of locals — grandmothers wrapped in traditional Ukrainian scarves — sat in chairs set on the slightly muddy ground watching the guests. Their grandchildren ran around, glancing at but not tasting the tiered, crusty Ukrainian-like challah made for the occasion.

The locals watching a ceremony about Rabin and his family, people who no longer have any connection to this Ukranian town (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The locals watching a ceremony about Rabin and his family, people who no longer have any connection to this Ukrainian town (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)


The group gathered around the plaque and stone placed in memory of the family of Rabin’s grandfather, Menachem Rubitzov, alternately smiling and griping about group photos.

From Sydorovychi, the group made its way to Kiev for a visit to the Nativ Center, which Rabin opened during a visit in 1995, just two months before the assassination. They then flew to Lviv, the Ukrainian city where Limmud FSU is taking place for a second time.

At the opening ceremony of Limmud FSU on Thursday night, Haber spoke briefly about the Israeli delegation’s visit to Sydorovychi.

“Many of our families came from Ukraine, from this area,” he said. “It’s clear that Zionism was a strong lesson in these parts.”

Both Haber and Dor will speak in English at the conference — Haber about the effect of Rabin on the political and social life of Israel; and Dor about repairing the world through humanitarian and economic aid, a focus of his current work.

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