Music to my ears

Music to my ears

Above, Nisan Cohen demonstrates a gramophone. Abby Leichman

Editor’s note: Our correspondent Abigail Klein Leichman made aliyah to Israel five years ago. She chronicled her move in her Aliyah Journal and now sends us occasional updates.

To celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary, Steve and I rented a car and spent two nights in Haifa and then Shabbat at nearby Kibbutz Nir Etzion.

I have written a couple of articles about Israel’s artists colony, Ein Hod, which sits right next to Nir Etzion. Ein Hod is a picturesque Carmel Mountain village housing Israelis with extraordinary talent in visual or performing arts, music, or literature. Every new resident must be approved by a jury on the basis of his or her body of work. It also houses several gallery shops, small museums, and cafés (which are not kosher).

On Friday morning, we stopped at Ein Hod to tour the galleries and to visit Dina Merhav, a septuagenarian sculptor whose soaring works fashioned from scrap iron stand in cities from Haifa to Shanghai. It had been Dina, a staunchly secular Jew, who had brought the religious Kibbutz Nir Etzion to my attention.

When I went to interview her for an article last fall, I had told her that I keep kosher, so she drove me to Nir Etzion’s commissary to buy lunch. Her workshop is on the kibbutz, which also boasts a beautiful hotel and grounds. After I came home, I told Steve I wanted to book it for our next vacation. We weren’t disappointed.

At the Ein Hod border across from Nir Etzion, there is a sign for the Nisco Museum of Music Boxes and Mechanical Music. Dina had never been there and couldn’t guarantee it would be worthwhile, but I’d seen this unusual museum listed on the Ein Hod website ( and I was curious and wanted to explore it.

Following the signs, we parked in a dusty lot next to what looked like a private home. A friendly dog sniffed us as we approached. We thought we must be in the wrong place. But then Nisan Cohen opened the door and we were swept inside what the proprietor describes as “one of the finest collections of antique music boxes and other mechanical musical instruments in the Middle East.”

Cohen accumulated the 200-piece collection over the course of 40 years, before immigrating from Manhattan two decades ago. Each music box, hurdy-gurdy, player piano, automatic organ, gramophone, hand-operated automatic piano, musical grandfather clock, and other antique musical instruments was carefully boxed and shipped to the Haifa port. Cohen repaired those that needed fixing, learned how to operate all of them, and shares the story behind each of his precious instruments.

Unfortunately, many of these fine pieces suffered smoke damage during the great Carmel forest fire in December 2010, which reached Ein Hod. Cohen is still in the midst of the slow work of cleaning and restoring.

He is especially proud of his archive of Yiddish gramophone records made from the early 1900s to the beginning of World War II. “These recordings reflect the spirit, soul, and humor of a people soon to be destroyed by the Nazi murderers,” he wrote in his brochure. He played a record for us, and if I closed my eyes I could imagine it was the voice of my paternal grandfather, a Hungarian-born cantor.

My favorite pieces were the music boxes. These are not jewelry boxes with ballerinas on top, but exquisitely crafted wooden cases housing an apparatus for playing music by means of a pin-crusted revolving cylinder, or record-like disc, rolling past a steel comb. Each pin, Cohen told us, was set by hand in the exact pattern required to play the particular tune.

Most of the boxes were made in Germany and Switzerland in the 19th century and they still produce a dulcet sound – but New Jersey’s own Thomas Edison eventually put them all out of business.

We mentioned to Cohen since we had lived in Teaneck for 20 years, we’d been to the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange.

“Teaneck!” he exclaimed. “I was born in Holy Name Hospital! A doctor named Weigel delivered me.” Turns out he spent his childhood in Jersey City.

Ah, there it was. You can go to the most remote place in this Jewish homeland with full confidence that you will run into someone who turns out to be a cousin’s cousin, a friend’s friend, an acquaintance of your mother or your kids – or a person born just a few blocks from where you used to live.

Feeling rather like family, Steve and I then browsed through the charming and kitschy gift shop of musical paraphernalia, some of it handmade by Cohen. As a present for our friends’ newly engaged son and his bride, we bought one of Cohen’s unique musical mezuzah cases. You turn a little crank at the bottom and hear the tinkly sounds of “Hatikvah” or “Hava Negilah.”

Next time you’re in Israel, consider a trip up north to check out this treasure. It will be music to your ears.

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