Leah and Nassib: Jerusalem through a Forgotten Story
intercommunal relationships
social mobility
family history

A beautiful building at the entrance to the Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, named “Villa Leah,” is a monument to an unusual love story from the early twentieth century – one that gives us insight into discrete social realities of the “Holy City” apart from oftrepeated historical narratives. Nassib Bey Abcarius, the grandson of an Armenian bishop, born in Beirut, arrives in Jerusalem after years studying law in Paris, working for the British army in Cairo, and becoming a judge in Khartoum, and enjoys a lucrative career as a private lawyer. At the age of 54, he falls in love with Leah Tennenbaum, the daughter of a Jewish real estate agent. During World War I, the teenaged Leah had become a focus of celebrity scandal, as the reputed concubine of Cemal Pasha, the Ottoman ruler of Greater Syria. After the war, she had a brief marriage to an officer in Britain’s Jewish Legion with whom she had a son, and returned to Jerusalem after her divorce. Nassib and the 30-year-old Leah wed in Paris in a civil marriage, settled in Jerusalem and quickly had two daughters. Five years into the marriage, the Bauhaus-styled Villa Leah was inaugurated but the couple lived in it only a few short years before Leah escaped with her children to Cairo in 1937, never to return. She died in 1967 in Montreal, surviving Nassib by twenty-one years.

Author biography: 

Norbert Schwake, born in 1939 in Germany, holds a master’s degree in theology and biblical studies. Formerly a priest in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Schwake became a medical doctor in 1978, and a researcher of the history of Jerusalem’s hospitals and of the Palestine Front in World War I. The author based this essay on the investigations of Carole Düster-Boucherot, a descendant of the Abcarius family; Moshe Hananel’s “The Jerusalemites: A Journey through the British Mandate Telephone Book, 1946,” published in Hebrew in Eretz Magazine (2007); and the works of Israeli architect David Kroyanker. The author wishes to thank Professor István Ormos of Budapest for his important comments on the draft.