Netiva Ben-Yehuda: A Gentle, Scrappy Titan Has Departed From Our Midst

As I walked into the Deli at the beginning of HaPalmach Street in Jerusalem, sitting at a table close to the sidewalk, I noticed a small wiry old woman sporting an “a la Prince Valiant” haircut and dressed predominantly in purple.  She wore a purple ribbon tied in Greek fashion across her forehead, it was visible through her bangs but hidden in the back somewhere inside her dyed blond hair.  (I later learned that in her youth she had been a discus thrower, perhaps this purple ribbon was a tribute to her Halcyon Days.)  Her face was behind a pair of large framed thick glasses and she was smoking away.  Suddenly she looked up from her writing and bellowed out: “Behema! B’aze z’hut ata ho-nay a la midracha? Red! Anashim holchim po!” (“Beast! By what right are you parking on the sidewalk? Down! Now! People are walking here!”).  I was so startled that I actually jumped forward into the Deli at the sound of her voice!
Inside the Deli, as I paid for my purchases I commented to the cashier: “That’s Netiva Ben-Yehuda! I’d love to talk to her but she sure is short-tempered this morning!  Anyway, I’m a Jerusalemite and know better than to just strike up a conversation with one of our famous ones.”  He quietly responded: “Provided you aren’t the fool who parked on the sidewalk she won’t be mean-spirited towards you.  It’s Netiva, she talks with everyone, it’s what she does.  Go on then, talk to her if that’s what you want to do.”
Encouraged by his straightforward answer, I went out and in Hebrew struck up a conversation with her.  “Excuse me Ma’am, I just wanted to thank you….” She interrupted me: “My name is Netiva. What is it that you want to thank me for?”
“Well, I am one of your late night radio program listeners and I just want to thank you for sharing your spin on past and current Israeli events and mostly to thank you for helping my Hebrew along.  You are one of my teachers!”

Clearly amused, Netiva commanded: “Sit down then, I am going to test your Hebrew, ‘Who are you and how did you get here?’”  Comforted by the command to talk, I started answering her question.
That was Netiva, whose bellowing cigarette husky voice I had just recognized.  And suddenly, there I was, sitting and talking with a scrappy Titan of the Nation, one of only two female platoon commanders of “HaPlamach” (lit: “the strike force”) the elite fighting force of the underground pre-state Haganah forces!  This woman who was a certified explosives expert, sapper unit leader, and platoon commander, who had written 20 books and had a much beloved and longstanding late night radio talk show calmly and patiently sat and tested my Hebrew language skills!  We had a short conversation, long enough for her to finish one cigarette and light another.  As she lit her next cigarette and pulled a hard drag on it, she declared the conversation over saying: “Your Hebrew is good enough, I’ve got material to finish for tonight’s broadcast, go away now!”
In the ensuing years from time to time I’d walk by the Deli at No. 18 HaPalmach Street, if she was sitting alone, I’d greet her, sometimes she’d look up at me and demand to know: “You with the good Hebrew, did you learn anything from my show last night?”  Since I always listened to her show, I always had what to ask in return!  At other times I’d be too afraid to disturb her, because even though she was looking straight at me, I could see that she was in a far away place with her thoughts.
Most of all, I enjoyed walking by the Deli and while pretending to look for something in the Deli’s outdoor racks, I’d covertly listen in on scraps of her conversations with her friends “The Café Netiva” regulars.  This morning, five days after her death and a day after her funeral up at Klil in the Galilee, I decided to walk by the Deli.  I was surprised to find that her table wasn’t empty: apart from the memorial candle burning on the table and the small memorial album with photos of Netiva sitting at this table, I found two members of the “Netiva Café” in attendance.  After asking their permission to photograph them at Netiva’s table and taking a few more pictures of photos in the album, they invited me to sit down with them for a bit.  The two attendees were Varda Livny, who had grown up with Netiva in “Little Tel Aviv” during pre-State days, and Yoram Haroeh, who took special pride in sharing the large Yediot Aharonot newspaper memorial article with Netiva dancing in the center of the page.  Yoram also explained that the reason Netiva had been buried “so far away” was because Netiva’s daughter Amal (lit. “laborer”) lives in the Galilee and one of Netiva’s first defensive actions prior to the War of Independence took place in Galilee.  I felt an instant affection for these two “Netiva Café” members and hope to go back and visit with them again soon.  In the meantime, I’m sure they’d agree, HaPalmach Street and the Deli feel too quiet, Netiva isn’t there playing her harmonicas and yelling at errant drivers parking on the sidewalk!             
For more about Netiva Ben-Yehuda please visit:
1. From “Front line Combat” on the BBC:
2. Ha’aretz Israeli Newspaper (English Edition)
3. About HaPalmach
l-r Varda Livny & Yoram Haroeh “Cafe Netiva” regulars at Netiva’s table
Netiva’s harmonicas, radio and cigarettes from the photo album
Netiva working at her table from her memorial album



(All photographs for this blog post are original works by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly)

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