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Stranger than fiction

Winemaker's road to Judaism, told at Englewood shul

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Vered and Erez Ben Saadon and their five children.

When Vered Ben Saadon, a 37-year-old Israeli winemaker who is in the United States on a marketing tour, was born, the future that stretched out in front of little Rosa Van Kovordan of Hausen, Holland, did not seem as if it would include immigration, religious conversion, changes of name and language, or, for that matter, winemaking.

But little Rosa was born into a background so complicated that no one should have been surprised by the twists in her own life.

Her father was born Jewish, but her mother was not. Her paternal grandmother, Lisha de Paris, was a teenager at the start of World War II. “Her story was the same as Anne Frank’s,” Ms. Ben Saadon said. “The same age, the same country.” Of course, Ms. de Paris’ story ended better. “And it is because of that, that we are here,” her granddaughter said.

“When I was 12, she gave me the diary that she wrote for her bat mitzvah. I was very proud to get it. And when my oldest daughter” – she is the mother of five children – “became 12, I gave it to her for her bat mitzvah, and then we both gave it to Yad VaShem.” She also received her mother’s yellow star badge and a sign that said “No Entry for Jews.”

Her mother, along with her family, was hidden by a family headed by a man named Jan Giliam, who later was recognized by Yad VaShem.

When the war ended, Ms. de Paris married another Jewish survivor, and they had two sons. One of them was Ms. Ben Saadon’s father. Her husband died, she remarried, had another child; that husband also died, and she got married again, this time to a non-Jew, a Dutch widower named Raul Meyer. Mr. Meyer had a child, a daughter – his first wife had not been Jewish and so of course his child was not either. The four children spent part of their childhoods together, and one of the boys fell in love with the girl.

Those were Ms. Ben Saadon’s parents.

Relatives of her mother had supported the Germans during the war.

Despite family objections – mainly from the non-Jewish side – the couple married. They both were physical therapists, and they were curious about the world around them. Together, they studied world religions. “After they learned about Buddah, they asked the teacher why they didn’t also study Judaism,” Ms. Ben Saadon said. “He said that he didn’t know too much, and that it was too complicated.”

But both of her parents were fascinated by Judaism. Propelled by their interest, and with their curiosity piqued by the relatives who already lived in Israel, already the parents of two small girls, they made aliyah. There, after just a few years – after trying hard, enduring rebuffs, and pushing forward – Ms. Ben Saadon’s mother, her sister, and she were converted by the chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren. Then her parents, who had lived separately once her mother was converted because they had not been married in a Jewish ceremony, remarried. “We have a nice picture of us at our parents’ wedding,” she said. “Who has a picture like that?”

Her grandmother was one of three sisters, Ms. Ben Saadon said. “One lived in Holland, and one in Israel; my grandmother made aliyah from Holland to Israel maybe 10 years ago.” The family held a reunion a few months ago, and “we were like 150 people, lots of babies, lots of children.”

Ms. Ben Saadon met her husband, Erez, whose family came to Israel from Morocco and Iran, when she was 15 and he was 18. “At first my parents did not know,” she said. “And then they found out.” The couple married at the end of her senior year of high school. Six months later, in love not only with each other but also with the romance of the land, they bought a vineyard.

They didn’t know anything about agriculture, but they knew they wanted land. They wanted roots in the Holy Land.

It was hard work, and it took them a long time to establish the business. “For years we had very little to eat,” Ms. Ben Saadon said. “We were a young couple. For a while, to earn money, I cleaned houses. I was cleaning houses even when I was pregnant.”

Their 40 dunams of land is in the Shomron, or Samaria Рin the West Bank, over the green line. The family grew high-quality grapes, and at first they simply sold them to winemakers. But soon the political situation made it difficult for them to sell their grapes. Just as the clich̩ says that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade, the Ben Saadons decided to take their grapes and make wine.

That is how the Tura Winery was begun.

The couple went to a winemaking school in northern Israel, and they started slow. At first, ten years ago, they made only 1,200 bottles a year; now they are up to 26,000, and sell 40 percent of it in North America. They produce red, white, and dessert wines; they have won medals in Eshkol Hazahav, the Israeli competition, and in Terra Vino, an international one.

“It’s hard,” she said. “We had terrorist explosions in the vineyards three times. Once they set a fire, and when we went to take care of it, a bomb exploded.

“We don’t choose this situation, but we deal with it, because we love the land of Israel, and we see with our own eyes how the land gives us back love.”

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