rose bilbool

Memorat: a tale with supernatural or mystical qualities

Dov Noy died on September 29, 2013 at the age of 92
Rose Bilbool, the rose of Jericho, died in 2012 at the age of 102

I was sitting next to her on the divan at Dov Noy’s salon, Monday nights, a few buildings down from the Prime Minister’s house on Balfour Street (Eric Mendelsohn had a house there). She was almost ninety then and elegant, spoke with a delicious central European accent, dripping every syllable like soup.

Dov Noy’s salon was a Monday evening event in Jerusalem; if you received an invitation, you were one of the most privileged people in the country at the time. I was introduced to Professor Noy by my friend Howard. “He loves music,” Howard said, “go there and sing, you’ll be a regular.” That’s just the way it happened.

An invitation to Dov Noy’s Monday evening salon was the most interesting evening in an interesting country. It was a simple sharing of interests, obsessions, talents; we went around the room, Dov Noy often commenting, elucidating, and filling in the background of each person’s work or interest.

Dov Noy, winner of the Jerusalem Prize and founder of the Israel Folklore Archives, long time resident of Jerusalem, held court every Monday night when he was in the country.

He invited people working on various projects to sit in his large living room and discuss their work. I often went; I taped a few of the sessions. I met many wonderful people there and heard remarkable stories. I always sang a song or two.

People referred to it as a Salon. It came from a custom of one of Dov Noy’s teachers, the world renowned folklorist Stith Thompson (1885-1976), who held a similar event where he lived and taught at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Stith Thompson raised several generations of students, as did Dov Noy.

Professor Dov Noy was chair of Folklore and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, founder of Israel Folklore Archives, and student of Stith Thompson at Indiana University, a world class scholar in the field of folklore in a country perfect for the discipline, a small country with a hundred different cultures in proximity.

At the first salon I attended, Rose Bilbool was sitting next to me. I think I drove her home that night. She was the most interesting, to me, of a roomful of interesting people. Dov Noy had introduced her as the Rose of Jericho (Vered Yericho); she was one of the few Jews still visiting Jericho on a regular basis. She had papaya groves there, and a laboratory, and a small manufacturing business creating cosmetics and stomach medicines out of the active ingredient of papaya fruit papain.

Bilbool is a funny name in Hebrew (it means confused). “Where did you acquire that name?” I asked her. “I married a Bagdadi nobleman,” she said. “His family were great Talmudists – skilled in pilpul. But you know there is no p sound in Arabic. They became Bilbool,” which she found very funny.

Her husband was working in business for the brother of the nuclear scientist Oppenheimer. Rose told me they were posted to Beirut. “Then came the War in ’67,” said Rose, “we had many friends in Beirut, and my husband many accounts. So we thought. But after ’67, no one was paying their debts to Jews any more so we had to leave.” Rose resumed her life with papayas in Jericho.

I had to get the whole story, so I asked Rose if I could go with her to Jericho some time.

“Of course,” she said, “whenever you like. I always like a driver.” I became her driver.

I picked Rose up at her apartment and drove down the winding road toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. In Jericho, she worked in what looked like a clinic surrounding by fields of papaya trees. These were not her only trees. She had several workers that kept the lab/clinic open and in order when she was not there. There was great devotion to Rose among the people of Jericho.

Beginning from early in the day until she left for home, local residents of Jericho lined up to see her. They called her Doctor Rose and they came with a host of health ailments and requests. Rose spent much of the time on the phone, and she often carried medicines and such from her friends at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem back to the residents of Jericho. When necessary, she made appointments at Hadassah for them. She was a one person all purpose clinic.

Rose herself was not an MD, she was a Ph.D. bio-chemist as she later explained to me. So in her clinic, she made many a shiduch/connection between the patient in Jericho and the far more sophisticated health system in Jerusalem. She seemed to know everyone in Jerusalem.

She was born Rozsika Perl on December 9, 1909, in Sziget, Hungary (same town Elie Wiesel’s family is from). She is a descendant of the Kalever Rebbe (R. Isaac Taub), which is important to her. On her wall in her apartment is a depiction of the famous Rebbe, and the words of a song brought down in his name, in Hungarian, called Szol A Kakas Mar.

Her sister was the well known gynecologist Dr. Gisella Perl, who published her story as I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz (a film came out in 2003 based on her story called “Out of the Ashes”) and Dr. Gisella served as the gynecologist in the horror of the camp. She died in Israel in 1988. Their parents and four brothers did not survive the War.

Rose earned an advanced degree in pharmacology from the Bucharest College of Pharmacology. In 1938, she fled Romania for Palestine, joined the Haganah, and began studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She studied biochemistry, I believe, and eventually earned her doctorate there.

In 1940, she and some friends were visiting Jericho where they bought some exotic fruit from one of the merchants. On the way back to Jerusalem, Rose noticed a British jeep had run off the road and there was an injured officer lying in the sand. He had a bleeding gash on his hip and Rose knew she had to bind it to get him to a hospital in Jerusalem. She had nothing sterile; what she had was a papaya, so she sliced one in half and bound it to his wound and drove the officer (he smelled like a distillery, she told me) to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. It was an hour and a half ride, Rose was sure he would bleed to death.

When she arrived there and they unwrapped the wound, everyone was surprised to see that the wound had begun to heal. What is this? Thus began her interest in papaya.

She began isolating the enzyme in papaya and experimenting with its healing and cosmetic properties. It was particularly good for stomach ailments, and fine women’s cosmetics. She bought some papaya groves in Jericho where the papaya grew particularly well in the low altitude and high heat and her reputation spread throughout the area. Dr. Rose became the agent of person-to-person peace-making in an area where such stories are not common. She knew everyone in Jericho and served whomever she could for as long as she was active.

On the way home from Jericho, we stopped at a not well-marked well. Rose turned on the water and drew out large empty jerry cans from her old Volvo and filled them with water. “The well of Elisha,” said Rose, “people believe the water has healing powers and I have some friends in Jerusalem who request it.” The well is known in Arabic as ‘Ein es-Sultan, and is identified with the story of Elisha purifying the water of Jericho by adding salt.

The people of the city [Jericho] told Elisha, Behold living in this city is pleasant, as my master can see, but the water is bad, making the land deadly. Elisha said, get me a new jar and put salt in it, and they brought it to him. He went out to the source of the water and threw salt there, and he said, “Thus said Hashem: I have cured this water; there shall no longer be from it death and bereavement. So the water became cured, until this day, like the word of Elisha that he had spoken.
— 2 Kings 2:19-22

The Rose of Jericho was the Elisha of Jericho. She brought healing to that ancient, desolate place – modern healing and traditional healing. She probably did more for peace between Israel and the PA [Palestine Authority] than years of diplomacy.

On the way to and from Jericho, Rose would often sing the song for me that she had from her ancestor, the Kalever Rebbe. “It’s a famous song,” Rose said, “very holy to many people.” Every time I heard the song I said to myself, “don’t forget this song. . .don’t forget this song” — but it didn’t have an easy tunefulness. I am good with melodies but this one eluded me.

Until a couple of years ago. I found it on YouTube and a Hungarian friend of mine helped me translate it. I sang it on the High Holidays 5772, 2012. Rose was 102 years old when she died, in March of 2012, just about the time I recovered her song. Her ancestor was known as the sweet singer of Israel, and Szol a Kakas Mar his most celebrated melody.


Dov Noy