Saturday, 11 August 2018

Sara Manobla: Israel's English voice

This article was published in the Jerusalem Report, 20 August 2018

          Kol Yisrael, until 2017 Israel’s state-supported radio network, translates as Voice of Israel, but for nearly forty years the true voice of Israel for millions of English-speaking listeners was the voice of Sara Manobla. Those warm, engaging, English tones were quite unmistakable, and much loved. 

          Until her retirement in 1999, Manobla was Head of English Programs for Kol Yisrael. Over many years the programs she commissioned were required daily listening not only for English-speaking Israelis, but also for visitors to Israel from English-speaking countries, and for a vast, global audience of people eager to hear about life in Israel.

         In its heyday, up to five English language broadcasts were carried by Kol Yisrael each day, transmitted both on the domestic radio channels and, via shortwave, to the world. Each began with a newscast, and then came Manobla’s variegated picture of life in Israel - its culture, politics, sport, business - so appreciated by her huge English-speaking audience.

          The people of note who passed through her radio studio over the years are legion – a galaxy of presidents and prime ministers, as well as celebrities from the worlds of music, literature, art, sport and business.

          Ursula Sara Towb was born in Newcastle in the north of England. Late in life she discovered that three of her grandparents had emigrated to the UK from Lithuania, while her paternal grandmother had come from the Lithuanian town of Zagare.

          In 1998 Sara joined a small party that visited Zagare to celebrate its 800th anniversary. It was not an entirely easy occasion. Their hosts were well aware that in 1941 the Nazis, assisted by local collaborators, had rounded up virtually the entire Jewish population of the district - some 3000 people - and slaughtered them. The Jewish visitors discovered little acknowledgement among their hosts of this Lithuanian involvement in the massacre.

          Over the following years Sara worked patiently with others in helping all those concerned - Jews and Lithuanians alike - to come to terms with what had happened. Their efforts were rewarded on July 13, 2012. In Zagare’s town square Sara presided over a ceremony to unveil a plaque commemorating the annihilation of the town’s entire Jewish community. Part of the dedication read: “German military occupiers and their Lithuanian collaborators brought the region’s Jewish men, women and children to this square on 2 October 1941. Shooting and killing of the whole Jewish community of Zhager began here and continued in the forests nearby. About 3,000 Jewish citizens were killed.”

          For everyone who participated in this ceremony the event marked not only an acceptance of what had happened, but also a step toward reconciliation.

          Later Manobla wrote a riveting account of her involvement with this project. She called her book “Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians confront the past”. In it she includes the surprising postscript to the story. She discovered, living in Jerusalem, an elderly woman who, as a little girl, had been hidden with her grandmother in Zagare by the Levinskas family. Manobla passed the facts to Yad Vashem, and in due course, in a ceremony in Zagare, the family was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”.

          Graduating from Durham University, Manobla set her heart on joining the BBC. Starting as secretary to the Music Organizer, Television, she was soon progressing up the career ladder, and by 1960 was producing foreign language radio broadcasts for the BBC World Service.

          In March 1960 she came to Israel on holiday, and decided to stay. She resigned from the BBC and settled in Jerusalem. Desperately in need of a job, she presented herself at the offices of Kol Yisrael. By some miracle of timing or good fortune, someone with radio experience was required. News of her presence reached a producer. He picked up the phone. “Tell the girl from the BBC to go to Studio 2.” Her life’s work with Kol Yisrael had begun.

          Reads "Kol Yisrael".  The entrance to the studios back in the 1960s

          Over the next four years she married Eli Manobla, a Jerusalem-born architect and artist, and they had three children. By 1964 she had been promoted to Head of English Programs, heading a team of radio journalists and filling a busy schedule of overseas and domestic broadcasts. In 1977 the Cold War was at its frostiest. Contacts with the West were heavily discouraged. Soviet Jews who applied to emigrate to Israel − refuseniks, as they came to be known − were often dismissed from their jobs and sometimes subjected to long terms of imprisonment.

          Shortwave radio broadcasts from the free world were routinely jammed. Kol Yisrael’s Russian broadcasts were subjected to this treatment. By some oversight those in English were not. So when Manobla, representing Israel at an international conference of journalists in Moscow in 1977, was able to meet a group of some 20 refusenik Soviet scientists, she was greeted as an old friend. “We know your voice. We tune into your shortwave broadcasts.”

          On her return to Kol Yisrael, Manobla made contact with activist groups such as the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and launched a weekly broadcast report on refusenik activities called “Let My People Go”.

          But change was on the horizon. In 1995 the Israel Broadcasting Authority announced that all radio broadcasts in English other than the news were to end. For a year or two she and her staff were transferred to the English newsroom to prepare and read the daily news bulletins. In 1999 she retired, and finally left Kol Yisrael.

          Now her chief passions in life, apart from her family, are music and travel. She plays piano, flute and cello in amateur chamber groups and orchestras, and she delights in travelling within Israel and abroad to music festivals and workshops.

          Sara Manobla was a permanent presence in the lives of English-speaking listeners to Israel radio for nearly four decades. Her voice was, and remains, unmistakeable, associated in people’s minds with a civilized, liberal view of the world in general and Israel in particular. She still regularly meets strangers who recognize her the moment she starts speaking. Whether she realizes it or not, there are countless people in Israel and across the globe who have the warmest memories of what she contributed to their lives, and regard her still as their friend.
                                                Sara Manobla today

Published in the Jerusalem Report, 20 August 2018:

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